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December 10, 2007
Holmqvist Plays Through 'Annoying' Criticism
Is Johan Holmqvist the solution or just another disposable goalie for Tampa Bay? TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski asks the Bolts keeper about being the make-or-break player for this team.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- He's the life of the party, or the reason the lights come up and everybody goes home.

He's the difference between winning the Eastern Conference or watching the playoffs from the sofa; the difference between organizational confidence or management having to reallocate assets in order to yet again repair a broken position.

He's Johan Holmqvist, starting goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he's one of the most fascinating players in the National Hockey League, because of the situation he finds himself in.

He's at once immediately disposable and eminently vital; a player who generates more speculation in the rumor mill about his seemingly inevitable upheaval than headlines in the media lauding his underrated play.

He's like a slowly rusting cog in a well-oiled machine — solid enough that you believe the machine can continue to function with him intact, and yet you'd feel a hell of a lot better about things if a stronger, better-tested cog were in his place.

Holmqvist is one of the NHL's ultimate victims of circumstance. After a few years of Dan Cloutier and Corey Schwab and Kevin Weekes, Lightning fans were reminded how important professional competency in the crease is for success when Nikolai Khabibulin back-stopped the Bolts to the Stanley Cup. When he grabbed Bill Wirtz's money and ran, the team turned to John Grahame for one forgettable season and then Columbus Blue Jackets shooting dummy Marc Denis, who promptly turned into one of the biggest flops in the post-lockout NHL — posting a 3.19 GAA and a .883 save percentage.

 

It's one thing for a No. 1 goalie to lose his job to a rookie like Holmqvist; it's an entirely different level of pathetic failure when he loses the back-up job to a second rookie, and counts his money in the press box as the team makes its playoff push.

Thrust into the spotlight, the then-28-year-old Holmqvist played inconstant hockey, posting a 2.85 GAA in 48 games.

There were highlights, like a three-game winning streak in late March; and there were lowlights, like a three-game winless streak earlier in the month that included a 2-goals-on-2-shots-in-5-minutes performance against Florida which earned him a tidy 22.43 GAA for the evening.

But for fans and media that had seen Khabibulin star in the playoffs two seasons earlier, Holmqvist's first round tease against the Devils only added to the uncertainty about his ability to back-stop the Bolts to glory. In two wins, he gave up four goals; in four losses, he surrendered 14. The fact that Tampa Bay only signed Holmqvist to a one-year, $1 million contract after that series was hardly a vote of confidence.

This team is only a few years removed from a Stanley Cup. It has the gross domestic product of Guatemala tied up in four star players. It needs to win, and it needs to win now.

Media and fans have let it be known that whether or not the Lightning succeed would be determined by the goalie; whether or not Holmqvist would continue to be that goalie will only be determined by Holmqvist.

For a young goaltender — in NHL experience, if not particularly in age for the now-29-year-old from Tolfta, Sweden — this would appear to be a heaping amount of pressure; ladled on top of the demands of being the last line of defense for a fire-wagon hockey team. Some nights he sees about 20 shots; the next night, he'll see 30.

"That's how we play," Holmqvist told me after a game in Washington some weeks ago. "Some nights you see a lot of shots, some nights you don't. As long as we win, I don't really care. You just have to be alert for 60 minutes."

If Holmqvist is anything, it's alert: He doesn't tune out the cacophony of trade rumors and scuttlebutt about Tampa Bay's goaltending position, and how his play could make-or-break the Bolts' season.

"You hear that all time. It's kind of annoying, actually," he said, adding that the scrutiny he receives can be unfair. "It's a team game. You win or lose as a team. You need the goaltending, but you need all the other details of the game. It's not all about goaltending."

Does he use that constant examination as motivation? Not really, according to Holmqvist.

"I know what I have to do," he said. "I know what I can do. I just try to take care of what I have to do and not worry about the other stuff."

Through 26 starts, Holmqvist hasn't given the Lightning a reason to worry. He has a 2.71 GAA, although his .897 save percentage could be better. But he's also shown flashes of brilliance, including seven of his 13 wins in which he held opponents to just one goal. As Damian Cristodero recently wrote in his St. Petersburg Times blog: "Every now and then, he plays a game that makes it seem his best days are ahead of him."

For example: His game again Carolina on Dec. 6, a 2-1 victory on home ice. The Hurricanes were on the man advantage in the second period when a shot from the point ricocheted off a pair of players in front. Cory Stillman found the disc and sent a blind pass to Justin Williams at the right post. His soft deflection appeared destined for the back of the goal; instead, Holmqvist reached left while sliding right and knocked the puck away with his glove. It was Hasek-ian in its acrobatic brilliance.

Later in the same powerplay, Jeff Hamilton blasted a shot from the point. Holmqvist made the save, and then alertly swept the puck away with his stick blade as Williams crashed near the crease. It trickled to Stillman, unguarded near the right post. Holmqvist flashed his pad over to cover the exposed net and made the save; the rebound came to Stillman for yet another chance, and Holmqvist managed to make yet another stop before covering the puck. It was one of those saves where you can hear an audible gasp from the crowd when they see it on the scoreboard replay. After picking up their jaws from the arena floor, they put their hands together for their goaltender in a standing ovation.

One powerplay in one regular season game does not a championship-caliber goaltender make. But it was another win towards Tampa Bay keeping its high-priced "The Big Three" intact through a holiday deadline GM Jay Feaster set for "changes" to the team's high-priced roster if the Bolts didn't improve in the standings.

It was another two points closer to a trip back to the postseason, where a wide-open conference is anyone’s for the taking.

And it was a reminder that Johan Holmqvist could still be the answer for the Lightning in goal — if he doesn't become the reason it all eventually goes to hell this season.
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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