Tampa Bay Lightning
Smith Loses Bolts Debut
TAMPA - From the moment Mike Smith stepped onto the ice, Tampa Bay's newest goaltender stood out. With his deep gold-colored leg pads and green-shaded mask still sporting the colors of his former team in Dallas, the 6-foot-3 netminder made his way to the crease to protect the Lightning net for the first time. The result didn't go the way Smith envisioned as Tampa Bay fell 3-2 to the Minnesota Wild and is now winless in its past five games, to fall further behind in the Eastern Conference standings. The now, however, is less relevant than the Lightning's future. And if there is a turnaround season coming anytime soon, Smith will no doubt be at the center of action.The 25-year-old native of Kingston, Ontario, stopped 24 shots, which seemed fitting considering the whirlwind 24 hours since he learned he was part of a five-player deal that included Jussi Jokinen - who logged over 22 minutes Wednesday - and Jeff Halpern, who figured in on both Lightning goals with a goal and an assist. But all eyes are going to be on Smith, the central figure Tampa Bay received in a deal that shipped Brad Richards to the Stars. The Lightning brass are banking on their newest goaltender being the No. 1 guy they have been searching for since the team won the 2004 Stanley Cup championship. "He's an unbelievable goaltender," Halpern said of Smith. "His competitiveness is probably his best attribute. I know he's disappointed not to get the win. I know he'll take it hard and it's one of those things, coming in and becoming a No. 1 goalie is learning, not just from game to game, goal to goal, is how to deal with that and how to take that. As a starting goalie, you're going to give up your fair share of goals, but I think he'll become one of the top goalies in this league, you know, top five if not better." Normally a heavy sleeper, Smith admitted it was a toss-and-turn kind of night Tuesday after he arrived in Tampa after midnight. He was at the rink by 9 a.m. to introduce himself to his new teammates and learn his way around the building. By the time he got in some work in the morning skate and built up a little sweat, he said his game-day nap was a long time coming. "I think this was one of the harder games I've ever played mentally," he said. "Just everything that's gone on the last couple of days is new to me, so fighting the nerves a little bit and mentally just wandering everywhere, but for the most part I felt pretty good." Though he let in a pair of goals 70 seconds apart in the second, the first that deflected in off the skate of defenseman Paul Ranger and the second the result of a 2-on-1, he made a statement when he stopped one of the game's top snipers, Marian Gaborik, on a pair of breakaways. Smith first stopped Gaborik 9:39 into the period and then came up big again at the 17:19 mark. "Tonight, I really liked his game. He gave us a chance to win," Lightning goaltending coach Jeff Reese said. "I love his athleticism, and for a big guy he moves and recovers extremely well." Perhaps the attribute that stands out the most is Smith's ability to handle and play the puck. Halpern said he's as good as anybody in the league and ranks up there with Rick DiPietro and Smith's former teammate in Dallas, Marty Turco. And Halpern, who played the past two seasons with Smith in Dallas, said he has no doubt the Lightning acquired a top-flight goaltender. "I think the more the defense on this team rely on him to be that rock, and the way he handles the puck and to make that first big save, I think this team will build off that," he said. "He's handled everything that's been thrown at him."
Reporter Erik Erlendsson can be reached at (813) 259-7835 or [email protected]