The bulky brace goalie Mike Smith
now wears on his left knee has a camouflage design.
It brings a little humor to an otherwise serious mission.
"I kind of don't want to see it," he said. "I thought I'd get something that'd blend in."
Not likely, since the support mechanism is only a little smaller than a shelf bracket. But Smith is well on his way to minimizing its physical and mental impact as much as possible.
Tampa Bay has sent Smith to its AHL farm team in Norfolk for a two-game conditioning stint that hopefully will wrap a bow on his recovery from a knee strain. He suffered the injury Dec. 20 and has missed the last 17 games.
Smith, 28, returned to competition Saturday, stopping 26 of 29 shots in a 3-2 loss at Syracuse. He said he's scheduled to start in Portland on Tuesday, then return to the Lightning.
"After a month of being off, I expect to be a little rusty," Smith said after the Crunch game. "Overall, I felt pretty good. Obviously, the game legs weren't there. It was a steppingstone in the right direction."
And what will Smith find when he makes that last, most important step up? Uncertainty, as well as a crowd at his position.
remains in place and on New Year’s Day the Lightning traded for Dwayne Roloson
from the Islanders. The veteran has gone 6-3-0 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in nine games for Tampa Bay.
"I actually knew before it happened," Smith said. "Steve (Yzerman, GM) mentioned it to me. He wanted to keep me in the loop, which I thought was respectful. We had a meeting. He said we're going to go with three goalies for now. I was kind of shocked at first. After it set in, I tried to use it as a positive thing. You can't worry about those things. You'll drive yourself nuts."
In battling Roloson for minutes, Smith needs his momentum to rebound as soundly as his knee. He was 2-0-0 with a 0.96 GAA and .961 save percentage in the two games before the injury, and in 17 games this season, he's 10-5-0 with a 3.20 GAA and .883 save percentage.
"Obviously it's not the ideal situation," Smith said of having three goalies, "but Steve felt he could upgrade the team. I have to take it as a positive. He (Roloson) is a guy I can learn from. In any situation, you have to play well enough to earn your starts. I can't see it lasting long with three goalies. But stranger things have happened."
Finding himself temporarily back in the AHL, where he hasn't played since 2005-06, is one of those unexpected curves. Smith joined the Admirals last week just in time for a swing through the Arctic zone.
He backed up for a game in Binghamton on Friday, and then awoke the next morning in Syracuse on a day when a polar bear would have been reaching for a hoodie. The team hotel was about a five-minute walk from the rink, but Smith still decided a cab ride was the way to go.
"No, I wasn't prepared. I didn't really dress for the flurries, so much," he said on the morning of the Syracuse game. "I have the sniffles already. I don't even have a winter jacket. I'm going to stay inside as much as I can."
Any rink, even those in the AHL, brings its own unique warmth, after all. Smith trundled into the Onondaga County War Memorial for an optional skate Saturday morning, even though he could have been excused for cashing in his veteran's status to take a pass.
"Obviously it's not the ideal situation, but Steve felt he could upgrade the team. I have to take it as a positive. He (Roloson) is a guy I can learn from. In any situation, you have to play well enough to earn your starts. I can't see it lasting long with three goalies. But stranger things have happened."
-- Mike Smith
"It brings back some good memories when I was in the minors, some good developmental times," Smith said.
"He didn't have to skate today. He didn't have to be out there working hard," said Admirals center James Wright
. "He's obviously a professional. He takes care of himself. It's good for a (younger) guy to see a player like that who does all the little things right. It's good to have those practice habits that translate to games."
Wright witnessed up close how seriously Smith takes even an informal workout when he beat the goalie in a drill.
"He hates when you score on him," said Wright. "Even today, I think I scored on him, he wasn't too happy. He just kind of shot the puck out. It's good for guys to see that competitiveness."
Smith doesn't have any other setting on his game. And he views his current detour as helping him as much as anyone else who cares to takes notes on his habits.
"It's not where I want to be, but it's going to be beneficial to my career," he said. "Getting in a couple games, gain some confidence, try to start where I left when I got hurt. Game situations are the thing that's going to help you get the confidence back. Everything I've done in practice I've done pretty well. I feel pretty positive."