Johan Holmqvist never got much of a chance during his time with the New York Rangers. The Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly happy about that.
Holmqvist tries to help the surging Lightning match a season high with their fifth straight victory Friday when they visit the struggling Rangers.
Tampa Bay (30-23-2) has been one of the league's hottest teams for a month, winning four straight and 11 of their last 13 games. The surge has moved the Lightning into a potential playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and within striking distance of Southeast Division-leading Atlanta.
While star forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis each rank among the league's top five scorers, Holmqvist may be Tampa Bay's most important player.
Marc Denis was expected to be the No. 1 goaltender for the Lightning after he was acquired from Columbus in an offseason trade. Denis, however, struggled from the start and the Lightning turned to Holmqvist, who made his NHL debut with the Rangers on Oct. 27, 2000.
Holmqvist appeared in four games with New York over the next two seasons before he was traded to Minnesota on March 11, 2003, but never played for the Wild. He spent the past two seasons playing in his native Sweden before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent on June 1.
Holmqvist continued his strong play Tuesday, making 29 saves in regulation and overtime before prevailing in the shootout in a 3-2 victory over Los Angeles.
"We weren't the best we could be," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "We didn't play a very good game, but you still get two points. We're not the only team that goes through that. The teams that win the majority of those are the teams that are there in April."
Holmqvist, 9-1-0 in his last 10 starts, has allowed only one goal in 17 shootout attempts this season. He is a big reason why the Lightning are 9-2 in games decided in overtime or a shootout.
"It looked like we had control for two periods, but they got back in the game," Holmqvist said Tuesday. "It was a good feeling to win a shootout again."
Lecavalier scored a goal for the fourth straight game, his team-leading 34th of the season. He continues to battle Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the league lead and his next goal will match the career high he set last season.
The Rangers (25-24-5) lost their fourth straight - all by one goal - with a 3-2 shootout defeat Tuesday at New Jersey. It was the eighth loss in 11 games for New York, which has dropped to 11th in the East.
"Absolutely, we have to start winning," goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "We're aware of the situation we're in. We're in a tough spot. We have to start winning. We're not going to give up. Hopefully, we turn this around."
Newly acquired Sean Avery played well Tuesday in his Rangers debut. Avery, acquired Monday from the Kings, assisted on Karel Rachunek's power-play goal in the first period and finished with four shots on goal.
One reason for New York's struggles is a dropoff in production from center Martin Straka, who has no goals and three assists in his last eight games. He had six goals and six assists in his previous eight contests.
The Lightning have a pair of one-goal wins at home against the Rangers since losing the first meeting this season 4-1 at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19. Tampa Bay has won four of the last five overall matchups.