No one on Tampa Bay doubts that Mike Smith, despite suffering from post-concussion syndrome that’s kept him out of the past few weeks, is the Lightning’s starting goaltender for the foreseeable future. What isn’t so certain is who will be his back-up.
Is it the veteran Olaf Kolzig, who brings experience to a team which has more than its share of youth? Or is it rookie Mike McKenna, who’s looked brilliant at times?
Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s the man the Lightning turned to Tuesday against visiting Chicago.
In what may have been one of the most brilliant efforts in which the Lightning allowed five goals, Karri Ramo proved, for at least one night, that he’s more than capable of playing well at the NHL level. Three of the goals were due to defensive lapses that allowed Blackhawks scorers point-blank shots, but they still weren’t enough to overshadow the multitude of outstanding saves Ramo made. Of his 44 saves, 18 came in a dominant Chicago first period in which the Lightning was outshot 19-3. In a game that could easily have been 4-1 or 5-1 in favor of the Blackhawks after 20 minutes, Ramo not only kept Tampa Bay in the game, but served notice that the team’s search for a back-up could finally be over.
Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet said the effort was a solid beginning, but that the 21-year-old from Asikkala, Finland will have plenty more time to prove his worth.
“Every team wants a quality back-up and obviously the job is open, so this is the time he can take control of that,” Tocchet said. “The last two months have been difficult. We just want to get him settled and get him some starts to see how he handles the situation.”
He’s on the ice early and battles every puck. We’re always taught that you practice like you play and when you don’t get a chance to play a lot, you make your practices your games. - Mike Smith
So far, Ramo appears to have handled the situation with all the poise of a veteran. After appearing in 22 games last season and posting a 7-11-3 record with a 3.03 goals-against average, Ramo has spent much of this season between AHL Norfolk and the Lightning bench. He’s appeared in only six games thus far, with Tuesday’s effort easily his best.
“You have tough times as a goalie and when you’re playing bad, it makes it even more difficult,” Ramo said. “This was the first time all year that I got to play and just have fun. When you’re having fun, the game is easier.”
According to Smith, there may be another reason for Tuesday’s standout performance. One that he said is forged when no one other than teammates and coaches are at the St. Pete Times Forum.
“His work ethic is … it makes me scratch my head and wonder how he does it,” Smith said. “He’s on the ice early and battles every puck. We’re always taught that you practice like you play and when you don’t get a chance to play a lot, you make your practices your games."
“It’s not easy to play one or two times a week and stay sharp. I know, because I’ve been there.”
With Smith’s return uncertain, the time could be ripe for evaluation of younger talent. In Ramo’s case, his play during the next few weeks could determine his future with the Lightning – another season of moving between Norfolk and Tampa Bay or a secured place as the back-up to one of the league’s best goaltenders. Either way, Ramo promised not to let the pressure of proving himself to coaches and teammates interfere with his performance on the ice.
“I know this is nothing I can control,” Ramo said. “You might think about it in the back of your head, but it’s not going to change anything. It’s not going to make you play any better. I know I just have to block it out and do my job. Really, that’s all I can do.”