Payoff time for a patient Burke

Tampa Bay turns, for now, to veteran goalie during hunt to playoffs.

Published April 6, 2006

TAMPA - This season has not worked out quite the way Sean Burke thought it would.

The Lightning goalie didn't know exactly what to expect, but he's pretty sure it wasn't this.

Has it been good? Not so much. Has it been bad? Well, not really.

"Disjointed would be the word I would use," Burke said. "It has had its moments of frustration. Injuries. Yeah, I would say disjointed."

That could all change starting now. It appears to be Burke's turn to carry the load as the Lightning's No. 1 goalie. That plan could be scrapped tomorrow. Or next week. Maybe one bad goal will put the reins back in John Grahame's hands. But, perhaps for the first time this season, Burke will have a real chance to be No. 1.

"This is the fun time of the year," Burke said. "You always look at this time as the most important part of the season, so whatever has happened up until now really is insignificant."

What happened? It started last summer. The Lightning did not re-sign Stanley Cup star Nikolai Khabibulin. Burke, 39, turned down guarantees to start in Pittsburgh and Phoenix so he could compete for a job on the Stanley Cup champion. And then without a true competition, Grahame, 30, got the lion's share of work.

Along the way, a pair of injuries sabotaged Burke's chance to be the man as well as coach John Tortorella's gut feeling on who should and shouldn't play. Through 74 games, Burke has made only 22 starts. He is 12-9-3 with a 2.79 goals-against average.

"At the start of the year, I don't think at this point I would've said I would have played as few games as I have," Burke said. "But that's not because I came in with an entitlement attitude. It's just that you have expectations of yourself and you have a vision of how things will work out and it doesn't always go that way. ... It doesn't always necessarily fit into the box in your mind of the way it should be."

Maybe the Lightning's season, as well as Burke's, would have been more clear if Grahame had not been so inconsistent. He has played well in spurts, poorly in others and has a 28-19-1 record with a 2.98 GAA. It seems he has been given more of a chance than Burke, however, to establish himself as the No. 1 goalie.

"I wouldn't do anything differently, but you're not wrong in saying Johnny has been given many opportunities," Tortorella said. "And I think Johnny has played some good hockey. I didn't have in my mind of who we wanted to be the No. 1. And I still don't. If we're fortunate enough to get into the playoffs, I still won't.

"I leave it up to them and how they play. They determine who plays."

Tortorella, however, acknowledges Burke's frustration. "Don't think Sean Burke has been terribly happy at times this year because he hasn't been," Tortorella said. "I think Sean thought maybe sometimes he should be (starting). John, too, probably. Burkey wants to help the team in any way he can. Does he want to play more? Yeah. Any player wants to play as much as they can. "

No matter what Burke has endured - the backup duties, the injuries, the long stretches of not playing - he has not stopped working.

"The thing that really sticks out my mind is preparation, how much he prepares each and every day," Tortorella said. "He is here every day very early getting ready for practice and getting ready for games. And we're hoping that's going to pay off."

Tortorella said he and Burke have had several conversations about playing time. Both say they want what is best for the team. Some nights that means Grahame in goal. Right now, it looks as if that means Burke.

"He looks at this situation right now and he wants the ball," Tortorella said, "and I'm going to hand it off to someone who wants it."

He's not suggesting Grahame doesn't want the ball. But Burke has waited his turn.

Now he's going to get it.