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Lightning have yet to settle on starter in net

by Dan Rosen
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Tampa Bay coach Barry Melrose believes he has a problem that most coaches would welcome.

It's a good old-fashioned goaltending controversy, or at least that's what it looks like from the outside as both Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig internally battle to be Tampa Bay's No. 1 goalie.

When you get inside the Bolts' dressing room, the mood doesn't quite befit a controversy. Actually, it's the opposite as both Kolzig and Smith praise each other for making the competition so good.

"Obviously Olie didn't come in here to be a backup, and I didn't expect that from him either," Smith said prior to Saturday night's 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers at O2 Arena. "It wouldn't make me a good goaltender if he did. It's a challenge out there — and everyone wants to play."

Smith got the nod in the regular season opener and played well, stopping 39 of 41 shots. The plan is to start Kolzig on Sunday.

Karri Ramo is also still with the Lightning, and although Melrose and Kolzig praised Ramo's play in the preseason, the young Finn doesn't figure into the mix just yet.

However, between Kolzig and Smith, it doesn't appear to be much of a battle for supremacy at all right now. The feeling you get from Melrose is that he wants both to play and eventually the situation will sort itself out.

"We'll get home and have some good practice time to get things settled out. But just like defensemen, you never have enough goaltenders," Melrose said. "You think you're solid, and all of a sudden someone takes one off the coconut and someone tweaks a knee to go pick up the puck and you're getting a goaltender out of the East Coast League. You can never have enough good goaltending."

Melrose decided to go with Smith in the opener in Prague because, "I didn't want Smith to wait an extra day to play. I thought Kolzig could handle that a lot better than Smith could."
Smith said he was told a few days in advance so he could prepare for the start.

"I'm not one to want to want to know the day before," Smith said. "You're mind starts to wander."
For Kolzig, not starting a season-opener was a strange position to be in. He was Washington's No. 1 goalie from 1997 until the Capitals got Cristobal Huet at last season's trade deadline.

Huet outplayed Kolzig and led the Caps' surge to an unlikely Southeast Division title.

"Unfortunately that's how things went. But you know what — at least you're given that opportunity," Kolzig said. "It's not just that we want you to come in and be the backup and play 10 games. That wasn't the case. They're giving me the opportunity, and all I can do is go out and give my best. Then it ultimately becomes the coach's decision. I'm a pretty competitive guy and Smitty is a pretty competitive guy, but regardless of who is in the net we have to be there to support one another and be there for the team."

If Lightning fans are hoping for a quick answer as to which goalie will top the depth chart, they will have to wait at least a month.

Tampa's schedule won't allow Melrose to figure it out because once the Lightning return from Prague, they play only seven games in the next 25 days. After Sunday, the Lightning don't play another game until next Saturday, when they open a five-game homestand against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"I'm sure they don't want one of us to sit there for three or four weeks," Kolzig said. "I guess it would be different if one of us had a clear-cut unbelievable camp and the other one didn't, but with what, four games in two weeks, you have to keep both guys somewhat involved.

"And, in the NHL these days it's rare (to have only one goalie)," he continued. "(Evgeni) Nabokov, (Martin) Brodeur and (Miika) Kiprusoff are fantastic throughout the whole year, but the new NHL is more mentally demanding. There are more quality chances and so much parity in the League now that there are no easy games, so I think you need to have both guys somewhat involved throughout the whole year."

That could be what happens considering no one in the Bolts' dressing room would be surprised if neither goalie plays 50 games.

"Smitty has been solid, we know what he's capable of," forward Martin St. Louis said. "We have confidence in our goaltending, both of them."

The Bolts' didn't have a goalie who played 50 games last season. But that wasn't by design. It was basically by default.

Johan Holmqvist started the year in net and played in a team-high 45 games, but he was traded to Dallas for Smith at the deadline. Ramo got into 22 games and Mark Denis played in 10, but both also saw some time with the AHL's Norfolk Admirals.

The Lightning went about solving their goaltending problems this summer.

They drafted Memorial Cup-winning goalie Dustin Tokarski of the Spokane Chiefs in the fifth round. Tokarski, who is 19, could wind up playing for Team Canada in the 2009 World Junior Championship. They then signed Kolzig, 38, to a one-year deal in early July to be the veteran presence.

With Smith, who is 26, signed through 2011 as well as Ramo, 22, and 2006 first-round pick Riku Helenius, 20, Melrose believes the Lightning will be in good shape for quite a while.

"We're getting some good depth at different ages and that's important," Melrose said. "They're not all 22 and they're not all 32. We have good separation in our ages."

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