For the second time in three games Monday, Tampa Bay used a three-goal spurt to earn a crucial victory, this time beating visiting Dallas, 4-2. Still, when asked about the key to another win the Lightning hopes leads to a playoff berth, Vincent Lecavalier
The captain’s known the key to Tampa Bay’s season all along - right from the time the two of them initially stepped on the ice together this season.
“Mike’s the key,” Lecavalier said. “Ever since our first practice at the beginning of the season, we all knew that. This game was no different.”
Lecavalier was referring to Lightning goaltender Mike Smith, who despite being with the team less than a full season, has quickly earned the trust of his teammates and respect of his coach.
Against his old team and battling Marty Turco, the goaltender who mentored him for two seasons with the Stars, Smith admitted feeling pre-game nerves more than at any other time this season. Still, “Smitty” as fans and teammates refer to him, did what he’s done countless times already - he kept the Lightning in the game.
Despite being shorthanded seven times and being outshot 20-11 during the first two periods, Smith held Dallas to just a 2-1 lead. And when rookie Steven Stamkos
and Lecavalier tallied late in the third to give the Lightning the lead and Vaclav Prospal added an empty-net goal to secure victory, all knew where to place the bulk of the credit.
“I think he’s a top-five goalie,” Lecavalier said. “I said the first time I saw him in practice he was going to be a top-five guy. Without Smitty, it’s a 3-1 or 4-1 game going into the third and then that’s a different game. He gives us a chance to win every night.”
Lecavalier mentioned that if not for an offensive slump for most of the first half of the season, Smith and Tampa Bay would be in a much better position in the Eastern Conference standings. First-year right winger Ryan Malone
took it a step further.
“He’s been doing this all year for us,” Malone said. “That’s why everyone knows he’s a No. 1 goaltender.
“There’s obviously not a lot going by him, so I used to joke that if he stopped every puck, we’d win. Then we lost a 0-0 game in a shootout and I didn’t joke with him anymore.”
Malone may no longer joke with Smith, but he certainly believes in him. Malone pointed to the team’s quiet confidence in their goaltender as a key on the ice, saying teammates know a goal here or there is all Tampa Bay often needs for a crucial victory, even when they fall behind early.
It’s a feeling the Lightning may not have had since their run to the Stanley Cup during the 2003-04 season when Nikolai Khabibulin was in goal. For Smith, who enters Wednesday’s game against visiting Buffalo having played 37 of the team’s 48 games and with a solid 2.49 goals-against average, a chance to star in the playoffs may come later. Right now, he considers his sterling play to be nothing more than just another day on the job.
“That’s what they pay me for,” Smith said. “They pay me to make big saves and the easy ones - basically to keep us in the game. We’re starting to realize if you stay in the game long enough, you get a chance to win it.
“We proved it can turn around pretty quickly for us.”