Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame push each other in a friendly relationship that benefits them and the Lightning.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published November 25, 2003
TAMPA - You can't really call what is going on in the Lightning net a competition.
Coach John Tortorella is clear Nikolai Khabibulin is the No. 1 goaltender and over the long haul will play more than John Grahame.
But darn it if it isn't nice to have the league's best backup, who is tops in goals-against average and save percentage and for the past nine games has alternated starts with Khabibulin.
So let's call it a push. Grahame pushes for playing time and that pushes Khabibulin. And whether he admits it or not, Khabibulin pushes back.
Did you see his 37-save masterpiece Sunday in a 0-0 tie with the Hurricanes? It was a timely rebound after five previous starts in which he went 3-2-0 with an .891 save percentage.
"The situation is great because it makes the hockey team better," Tortorella said. "Nik is playing very well, but to have a guy play the way Johnny has and who says, "I don't want to be a backup, I want more,' I think that's terrific. It's terrific for Johnny. It's terrific for Nik. It's terrific for the team."
No kidding. Khabibulin is 8-2-2 in 12 games with a 1.97 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and two shutouts. Grahame is 3-1-1 in six games with a 1.06 goals-against average, a .957 save percentage and one shutout.
But before anyone could suggest the situation might complicate what has been a friendly and fruitful relationship, there was this: Grahame whispered in Khabibulin's ear while Khabibulin answered questions on that very subject, and both laughed.
"Why would I worry?" Khabibulin said. "If we win games, why is it bad? I think the way John plays is very beneficial to the club. At the same time, I'm just worried about what I can do when I play and doing the best I can when I step on the ice."
"We help each other out," Grahame said. "We're out early every day to practice and we sit on the (team) plane together. Believe me there's no problem. Nik is comfortable and I'm comfortable. There's no jealousy, nothing. It's just a good tandem."
That doesn't mean Grahame is happy as No. 2.
"That's the situation now and I have no problem with it," he said. "But I'm never going to be comfortable sitting on the bench. I definitely think 100 percent that I should be a No. 1. That's what I'm striving for, and that's what everyone strives for, to be the best. And given that opportunity, that's what I want. So there's no hiding that or anything."
Who will face the Rangers tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum? Tortorella isn't saying. Actually, he never says. But after Sunday's effort, it is not a stretch to think a hot Khabibulin gets the call. If so, it will be his first back-to-back starts since Nov. 1 and 4.
"He will play more than Johnny," Tortorella said. "It will work out that way. But we don't go into any situation where we have to do anything. We make decisions on what is best that particular night for the team. It doesn't complicate my thinking at all."
The Lightning has the best of both worlds.
It has a star in Khabibulin who has proven he can carry teams over a long haul. He did it for most of 2001-02, and last season's 16-game unbeaten streak propelled the Lightning to the playoffs.
And it has Grahame, who can step in at a moment's notice. And, by not allowing more than two goals in any game he played this season, reminds Khabibulin he is there.
"There needs to be a push there," Tortorella said. "They pull for one another, work well off one another and respect one another. But I think they both believe the push is good for one another."
Especially when done in partnership.
"We have a very good relationship," Khabibulin said. "We communicate. We discuss the games and different plays."
"If I play or he plays, that has nothing to do with us," Grahame said. "It's a coach's decision. We're not stabbing each other in the back. Whoever plays, we both feel comfortable. It's a good situation."