Not very long after he signed a two-year contract with the Lightning this summer, Dan Ellis got in touch with Mike Smith. The two goalies knew they would eventually battle for playing time in Tampa, but it did not matter. They were friends first, happy to be teammates again.
Ellis and Smith are crossing paths for the third time during their NHL journey, which has taken them to all parts of North America, and both are confident they can help the Lightning set sail for the playoffs.
"We’ve been in this situation before and I know both of us take the same stance," Ellis said. "Whoever is in net, the most important thing is the team and not the personal battle.
"As long as you continue to play well, you’ll get your opportunities. Hopefully, we’re both playing well and we’ll split it 50/50."
Smith and Ellis first joined the same team in the 2003-04 season with the Utah Grizzlies. The two Dallas Stars prospects then went their separate ways.
Ellis, a second-round pick in 2000, skated off to Idaho and won an ECHL title, then to Hamilton, Ontario.
Smith, a fifth-round pick in 2001, took off for Houston.
When the 2005-06 season began, both set their GPS for Des Moines, Iowa. Smith played 50 games and Ellis 34 that season for the Iowa Stars. The two combined for 41 victories, five shutouts and seven assists (six by Smith) to reach the playoffs.
It did not take long for them to forge a great friendship.
"We got along right away," Ellis said. "We lived almost next door to each other and we were together non stop. We were best buds."
Smith went off to the NHL in Dallas the next season, backing up Marty Turco most of the next two seasons before the trade to Tampa Bay. He formed a great relationship with Turco as well, learning a lot from the veteran netminder.
"From past experiences, I know I’ve had some of the best years of pro hockey playing with guys I jelled with and were good friends with off the ice," Smith said. "I think we both had really good years in Iowa and we both achieved our goals by making it to the NHL.
"It’s going to help having him here. We play the same kind of styles. We both play the puck and it’s gonna be fun to be around here. I’m sure we’ll push each other to be the best we can be."
Lightning coach Guy Boucher said his team has two goalies that can be No. 1 and they have a clean slate with him. He is expecting them both to bring something to the table.
Who is No. 1 now?
Boucher said he will have the same answer all season: The goaltender that is starting that day.
"I find that when you have two guys that are competing at a high level like this," Boucher said, "It tends to give you two goaltenders pushing so hard that they both improve."
Smith is aiming to put together a big season after being hampered by injuries the last two years.
Unfortunately, Smith suffered a slightly fractured finger on his glove hand in practice recently. But the good news is, it won’t likely keep him out very long. He is ready to go for the long haul.
"I feel great," Smith said. "I worked very hard this summer, made sure I was in great shape. I did a lot of work with my goalie coach back home and I think I got it really dialed in for the start of the season."
Smith is from Kingston, Ontario; Ellis from Saskatoon. Boucher said their personalities are a little different. But they have the same mindset in the net.
Right after their first informal practice together a few weeks ago, the two goalies spent out 20 minutes chatting on the ice.
"[Smith] is a fun-loving guy," Ellis said. "He’s got a lot of energy, he’s easy to talk to and he’s a very trustworthy person. He’s got your back in any situation. He’s made the transition here very easy."
Smith (6-4, 215) is bigger than Ellis (6-1, 191), but they are both very athletic in net.
"Dan isn’t a big guy, but he plays big in net and has a great base to his game," Smith said. "He’s a battler. You’ll see a lot of acrobatic saves from him."
Ellis played 163 games in the minors, just one in the NHL (a win in 2004), his first four years in the Dallas system. It wasn’t going to happen there.
Nashville signed Ellis as a free agent in 2007 and he won the No. 1 job for the Predators. He didn’t just do that, Ellis led the league in save percentage (.924), was tied for third in shutouts (6) and 12th in goals-against average (2.34). Ellis had a .938 save percentage in the playoffs, but Nashville was knocked out in the first round, four games to two.
"My team played very well that year," Ellis said. "It took me so long to get to the NHL, that I just really didn’t want to miss my chance. So I really tried to dig deep and stay focused.
"This is no different. It’s a fresh start here in Tampa. I’ve never played with this caliber of players before. There are world class players all the way through the organization. To come here is extremely exciting."
Ellis now has a new chance after Pekka Rinne edged him out as No. 1 in Nashville. Smith has one year left on his contract. Through an 82-game season, the Western Canadian boy and the Ontario native will go through the ups and downs together.
The Lightning will need them both to perform well to reach their goals. Ultimately, their performance will dictate their playing time.
"The only responsibility Mike and I have is to come prepared every day and give our team a chance to win," Ellis said. "That’s all you can do, get in the right mindset to play to the best of your ability each start."