HOLMQVIST BRINGS CHAMPIONSHIP MENTALITY TO TAMPA BAY IN RETURN TO NHL
When Johan Holmqvist arrived in Tampa Bay this season he may not have stood out as one of the most recognizable faces on the ice. The Swedish netminder wasn't even a surefire bet to make the team coming out of training camp, but what Tampa Bay Lightning management knew was that Holmqvist carried an impressive resume that included championships and league-leading performances.
Following a three-year absence from the league Holmqvist found himself in Tampa Bay still looking for his first National Hockey League victory, but not without good reason.
A 1997 seventh-round draft choice of the New York Rangers, Holmqvist spent a handful of years playing in his native Sweden before coming to North America. When he was unable to crack New York's lineup for more than two games per season Holmqvist played a year in the American Hockey League before returning to Europe. While that may seem like a rough path for a goaltender to take in his attempts to make it to the NHL, it was just what Holmqvist needed to build his confidence, maturity and resume.
Spending most of his time playing with the AHL's Hartford Wolfpack, Holmqvist made his long-awaited NHL debut during the 2001-02 season. Although the game ended as a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins it gave the young goaltender a taste of the NHL experience that he would carry with him through the years.
By 2002-03 he had only appeared in three more NHL games, but it was his performance in the minors that was catching people's attention. After beginning the season with Hartford, Holmqvist found himself back-stopping the Houston Aeros late in the year. Going 5-3-0 through eight regular season appearances it was during the playoffs that Holmqvist's game really took off.
Through 23 playoff games Holmqvist posted a 15-8 record, including a shutout and an impressive 2.00 goals-against average. What really stood out was that in his short time with the Aeros that performance had earned Holmqvist the Calder Cup championship and the distinction of playoff MVP.
Holmqvist spent the following season with Houston before making the decision to return to his native Sweden to play for Brynas IF of the Swedish Elite League - the same team he had started his career with. The former Swedish Junior of the Year (1997-98) was going home and to a place where he had already earned one championship (1999).
Although he didn't take his team all the way again, it didn't mean Holmqvist's game wasn't taking shape. Turning out consistent performances Holmqvist landed amongst the league leaders by his second season back with Brynas. His goals-against average (1.95) was good enough for the best in the league and he finished second with a .928 save percentage. The performance earned him seven starts for Sweden during the 2006 World Championships, a time in which he posted a 5-2 record, a .909 save percentage and earned the top goaltender award while leading his team to the Gold Medal.
"I [tried] to work on my game the last couple of years and I've been working very hard and I had my mind set that I wanted to come back," Holmqvist said. "I wanted to come back and prove that I could play in the NHL. So, I worked very hard and I just worked on small things in my game. I played a lot of big games [and] I had the chance to play for the national team and that helps - gets your confidence going."
"I'm a couple years older now, too, so I'm a little bit more mature... I've grown a little bit as a man and as a goalie and that helps."
In that quest to return to the NHL Holmqvist had picked the perfect time to turn his game up - it was then that the Lightning scouts were watching, which gave the netminder the perfect opportunity to showcase his skills, growing confidence and maturity.
"Obviously it's great experience and I know I can play in big games," Holmqvist said of the World Championships. "I know I can win championships and I've done it before... it's good to know you can win big games. I've had North American playoffs, [and] that's really fun to play in, but I think that especially last year in the World Championship I got a kick in my confidence."
The kick was just what Holmqvist needed coming into what would be his fourth NHL season. Making the team out of training camp, Holmqvist finally earned his elusive first win in early November against the Philadelphia Flyers. Considering his past successes, it should come as no surprise that the victory began a five-game winning streak and a span of eight wins in nine games.
"Obviously it was very nice," Holmqvist said of his first win. "I kind of waited for that for a long time and I was very happy because it was a big win for the team, too. It felt really good."
Although his first full season has had its share of ups and downs, Holmqvist has shown on a nightly basis that he's prepared and ready to compete. Using the experience he gained overseas, as well as his previous experiences with North American hockey, it seems as though the Lightning goaltender has adjusted well to his new surroundings.
Going into the All-Star break, Holmqvist had compiled 15 wins, including a pair of five-game winning streaks. Even more impressive was his success in the shootout - through three shootouts Holmqvist had posted a 3-0 record by stopping all 13 shooters he had faced. Of four goaltenders in the league with a 1.00 save percentage in the one-on-one battle, only Holmqvist had appeared in more than one shootout.
"Well, there are kind of big differences," Holmqvist said of NHL hockey. "Pretty much all the best players in the world are in this league, so it's a higher level of everything. But you know, back home in Europe we have the big ice, and here things are a little bit tighter around the net - it's a little bit more intense of [a] game, so it's a little bit different."
Despite those differences Holmqvist's determination has paid off. With a few seasons of success under his belt, including a handful of championships, the Lightning netminder has looked anything but out of place in his long-awaited return to the NHL. As his hard work and competitive nature continue to pile up positive results, Holmqvist will become anything but a goalie that is hard recognize.