2013 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals: The ghosts of playoffs past

John Grahame (47) got the start over Nikolai Khabibulin in Game 5 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup between the Lightning and New Jersey Devils - Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images/NHLI

A big name player scratched from a elimination game being played in the tri-state area, with John Tortorella being the coach who made that decision? I've seen this before, about 10 years ago...

You've likely heard already, but if you haven't: former Tampa Bay Lightning center Brad Richards (now playing for the New York Rangers) will be a healthy scratch for tonight's Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup between the Rangers and the Boston Bruins; an elimination game where the Rangers must win.

Rangers head coach John Tortorella not starting an integral member of his team with the club on the brink of playoff elimination might seem like a huge mistake, it might read as pomposity or arrogance or outright suicidal stupidity on John's part (and everyone knows gruff Tortorella is stubborn, win or lose). The thing is, he's done it before, and it nearly paid off too.

Just a few miles from where the Rangers and Bruins will play tonight was where it took place; what was known as Continental Airlines Arena in the swamps of Jersey. Ten years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning was playing game 5 of their own Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils and trailed 3 games to 1.

It wasn't Brad Richards scratched from that affair, or Martin St. Louis, or Vincent Lecavalier, nor Fredrik Modin, Dave Andreychuk, Tim Taylor, Dan Boyle or Pavel Kubina. It wasn't one of the Bolts skaters who were sitting. No, it was goalie Nikolai Khabibulin who was assigned the backup role behind the guy who had backed him up most of the season, John Grahame.

It didn't prevent elimination of the Lightning by the Devils, the eventual Stanley Cup Champions of 2003, but the Bolts (and Grahame especially) fought tooth and nail to stave off inevitability.

That game went to overtime, that game went beyond overtime... It wasn't until 11:12 of the third overtime that Grahame faltered and the Lightning ultimately conceded the series. Grahame made 46 saves on 48 shots during that marathon, arguably playing the game of his career in the process.

It was a Tortorella gamble for sure; as Khabby was the all-world netminder the Lightning had obtained in late 2001. Khabibulin was the workhorse for the club, playing in 135 of 164 games over the course of his first two full seasons in Tampa.

And to have him sit out game 5? Unspeakable, unheard of. Of course he didn't like it... But it happened. And of course fans questioned John Tortorella's decision, but the team was 5-5 in the playoffs (having swept the Washington Capitals in the first round) and Khabibulin needed to raise his game (he had a .913 save percentage and 2.42 GAA in the NHL playoffs).

Perhaps Tortorella's message was longer-term and not simply trying to prolong the series against the Devils; players would have to perform above and beyond in crucial situations or all was for naught. Mediocrity is unacceptable and playing it safe is death. The Lightning would heed that message next season, pushing all the way to Stanley Cup glory.

Torts might not be afforded the chance to make this a long-term message (if it is one) for the Rangers roster. With an underwhelming offense during the regular and post-season, Torts is already on the hot seat among Ranger fans and possibly team execs too.

This isn't an unheard of move by Tortorella though. What it does for the Rangers tonight will be determined after the puck drops at Madison Square Garden.

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