Holmqvist needs to improve if Bolts want to survive

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If the Lightning are going to beat the Devils in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, inexperienced goaltender Johan Holmqvist is going to have to play better than he did in Thursday's series opener.

A lot better.

Holmqvist, 28, playing in his first career playoff game, looked more than a little shaky in the Lightning's 5-3 loss at the Continental Airlines Arena. Afterward, he was ready to put it behind him.

"It was just one of those games," said Holmqvist, who kept his remarks brief. "I have to get over it and get on to the next one."

Well, I can't say he doesn't have the right attitude.

In the first period, Holmqvist's night started with a softy when he allowed Zach Parise's wrist shot to trickle through him. It was the kind of goal that doesn't inspire confidence on the bench. It was also a good illustration of the Devils' game plan against Holmqvist.

"We wanted to get quick shots," Devils right wing Brian Gionta said. "When he gets set, he's a good goalie. Our scouting report says it takes an extra second or two for him to get set. We didn't want to give him that time."

A few moments later, the Devils took a 2-0 lead on a frozen rope of a one-time slapper by captain Patrik Elias from the top of the right-wing circle. Again, Holmqvist seemed a little slow getting across his crease to square up for the shot. In fairness, though, Elias' blast ticked off the stick of Lightning defender Nolan Pratt on its way to the net.

The Bolts' first-line studs, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, weren't about to let a few soft goals get them, or their team, down. When Lecavalier netted his second goal of the game at the 2:51 mark of the third period, the Lightning had pulled even, 3-3.

But, 63 seconds later, Holmqvist couldn't the keep the knot tied. After a neutral-zone turnover by Ruslan Fedotenko, Parise took a pass from Jamie Langenbrunner and moved down the right side. The sophomore sniper banked a shot off the goalie's left shoulder and it went into the net.

Down one, the Lightning again pressed for the equalizer. This time, they couldn't get it.

Any final chance Tampa might have had went down the drain at the 18:38 mark when Gionta beat Holmqvist from in close. On the goal, Holmqvist created his own problem by deciding to flip Gionta's first shot back into play. He was attempting to get the puck to defenseman Paul Ranger, who misread his goalie's intentions. Elias swooped in to pick up the loose puck and made a quick pass to Scott Gomez. He slid the puck to Gionta, who finished the play by beating Holmqvist stick side.

After the game, Tampa coach John Tortorella handled questions about his starter with care.

"He played OK," said Tortorella, who has been known to offer some brutally honest critiques of his own goaltenders. "He can play better. It was his first [playoff] game. He'll be better in the next game."

Tortorella really doesn't have much of a choice but to defend Holmqvist because he doesn't have anywhere else to turn. The coach made it a "Holmqvist or bust" situation for his team when he relegated early-season starter Marc Denis and his dreadful .883 save percentage to street clothes for Game 1, opting to dress less-than-little-known Karri Ramo as the backup.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the rink, it was business as usual for Martin Brodeur, or, as Gomez referred to him, "The Great Martin Brodeur." Making the 154th career playoff appearance, Brodeur kept Tampa at bay down the stretch to secure the win.

"The bigger the stakes, the better he gets," Gomez said. "He's so good, we probably take him a little bit for granted."

Gomez made an interesting point when talking about the future Hall of Famer.

"Every other goalie measures himself against Marty," Gomez said. "They all get up when they play against him. Every night, those goalies at the other end of the rink really want to beat him. Marty knows that, and he knows he has to be on every night. That's a lot of pressure. I think people really overlook that."

If the guy at the other end of the rink is going to beat Brodeur in this series, he'll have to be better than he was Thursday.

A lot better.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.