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
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
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.
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
is now on sale.