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Time for Lightning fans to pick a favorite

Published Feb. 16, 2006

Johnny wore blue. Vinny wore white.

So who do you root for?

Freddie wore gold. Kubie wore a ribbon of blood trickling down his nose.

So which of them do you cheer?

Lightning struck the Olympics on Wednesday, and you would have recognized the players everywhere. You have seen their flair before, and you have seen their frustrations. The bolt across their chests was not necessary to pick the familiar faces out of the lineups.

That flash of speed heading toward the net? Yeah, that was Marty St. Louis. Those locks of hair dangling over the eyes as the goaltender talks quietly about a game that got away? Yep, that was John Grahame. That defender taking the puck to the ribs? Sure enough, that was Pavel Kubina.

They have been salted across the Olympics, scattered to this team and that one, under one flag and another. They are no longer the team from your nearby UN. They are American and Canadian, Czechs and a Swede.

If you are a Lightning fan, then, it is time to make a decision.

Who are you pulling for here?

Hint: Pull for Grahame. And not simply because he's American.

Unless you are a my-country-at-all-costs sort of Olympic fan, this isn't an easy choice. Oh, the Americans have the flag, and the Canadians have the firepower, and the Czechs have the grit, and the Swedes have the chemistry. But players in the Olympic hockey tournament are hardly your plucky little lugers who grew up under one flag. They are multinationals. They are mercenaries.

In the case of the Lightning, they are yours.

"Pull for Canada," says Vinny Lecavalier, a grin creasing his face. And for a Lightning fan, there is some temptation.

The Canadians are the team with the Triplets, the trio of Lecavalier, St. Louis and Brad Richards. At times, all three of them showed flashes of brilliance against Italy.

St. Louis had a goal and an assist. Richards had a goal and an assist. Lecavalier had two assists. And after a snail-footed start - Canada was tied 1-1 with the outmanned Italians into the second period - all three looked active and energized.

So who do you pull for?

"Of course, the Czechs," Kubina said.

Yes, it would be good for a Lightning fan to see Kubina and Vinny Prospal play well. Those two are going to be important down the stretch drive, too.

Then there is Freddie Modin, who had an assist Wednesday. Modin is the Lightning's most underrated player, and as such, it's always nice to see him do well.

If the Lightning means more to you than the Olympics, however, the man you have to pull for is Grahame. More than any other player, his season is at risk.

They are men of fading confidence, goaltenders. Their margin of error is so slight, and their emotional streaks are so pronounced, that a bad run can linger longer with them than any other position. Look, if Lecavalier doesn't light it up in the Olympics, he's going to be fine. Same with Richards. The Lightning would love to see St. Louis kick it in because he hasn't had his expected start to this season, but he's going to be okay, too.

But from the looks of the American team on Wednesday, it isn't very good. Expect the blame to begin in front of the net.


The Americans tied Latvia? The U.S. is as good as Latvia?

Look, it isn't just that the Americans tied Latvia, it's that they had to rally to tie Latvia after blowing a two-goal lead. Not only is Latvia the size of West Virginia, it has only two more NHL players. Think about that. Pretty much, the U.S. hockey team has tied the Mountaineers.

It makes no sense. Yet, for a 10-minute period, the Latvians kept running at Grahame as if they were on a stampede. He didn't do badly; you could quibble with one of the three goals he allowed.

Still, if things are as desperate for the U.S. as they looked against Latvia, you get the feeling that Grahame's role as the No. 1 goalie is not etched in stone. And the last thing the Lightning needs is for Grahame to leave these Games with a damaged psyche. On a team with little offense and less defense, it has to be a concern.

It's a good thing, these Olympics. As travel weary as the players are, something stirs in them when they play for their countries. Grahame talked about the chill he felt as he walked onto the ice thinking about all the other goaltenders who have made the same journey. St. Louis talked about the swell in his chest as he pulls on his country's jersey.

So who do you pull for?

Lightning general manager Jay Feaster has an idea. Pull for the trainer. Pull for making it back in one piece.

Feaster watched the Olympics from back in his office in Tampa on Wednesday, perhaps peering out from under his desk. He's a nervous man these days. There are a lot of trips down the ice, and he doesn't want to see a knee turned around in the name of beating Kazakhstan or Slovakia. Or anyone else.

"What I go to bed praying for, and what I get up thinking about, is that the Tampa Bay eight (the seven players plus Dan Boyle, an alternate for Canada) stay healthy," Feaster said. "It's a big-time concern. Look, we're damn proud of our Olympians. But at the end of the day, the issue for us is the NHL season. From that standpoint, so little good can come from it, and the negative could be catastrophic. We've told all of our players to light a candle."

So who do you root for?

You root for moments. You watch to see St. Louis rush the net in that familiar blur of his. You watch to see the puck on the end of Lecavalier's stick. You look for the softness of Richards' hands and the stubbornness of Modin in front of the net.

Most of all, however, you want to see Grahame do well.

After all, the Lightning has goals even bigger than Latvia.