The Tampa Bay Lightning aren't sure if starting goaltender Mike Smith will be healthy enough to return from an upper-body injury this week, though they say he's making progress.
Mike McKenna's latest performance has made the wait a bit easier.
After posting a shutout in his second career start last time out, McKenna could be in net for the third straight game on Tuesday when the Lightning host the hapless Atlanta Thrashers.
Smith has been solid for Tampa Bay (18-24-11) in an otherwise disastrous season that's featured the dismissal of coach Barry Melrose just 16 games into his tenure. His 2.62 goals-against average on a struggling team played a big part in the Lightning giving Smith a two-year contract extension last week.
The contract, though, was signed three days after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia on Jan. 30, and while general manager Brian Lawton said he's "progressing nicely," it's unclear if he'll be ready for Tuesday's game.
McKenna certainly will, however, and Tampa Bay has to feel confident in its rookie netminder after his start Saturday against the New York Islanders. McKenna, a sixth round pick of Nashville in 2002 who toiled for years in the minor leagues, stopped 28 shots in the Lightning's 1-0 win.
"How can you not root for a kid like that?" interim coach Rick Tocchet said. "All of a sudden, now he's our starting goalie. Pretty unflappable kid. He's done a good job."
McKenna and the Lightning's defense caved in the third period of his first start, a 4-3 overtime loss in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, but aside from that contest, McKenna hasn't allowed a goal in six-plus periods in the NHL.
"I can't begin to say how many good goalies there are in the AHL that never get this chance," McKenna told Tampa Bay's official Web site, "and for me to sit here knowing I'm doing my best to capitalize on it is very satisfying."
Atlanta's goaltending situation is much more dire. Three players have made at least 10 starts for the Thrashers (18-31-5) this season, and Kari Lehtonen's 3.26 GAA is the best of the bunch.
Lehtonen, though, was pulled midway through the second period from his latest start, allowing five goals on 24 shots in a 5-1 loss to New Jersey on Friday.
With that in mind, coach John Anderson gave Johan Hedberg his first start since Jan. 16 on Sunday against Philadelphia. Atlanta fell behind 3-0 early in the third, however, and power-play goals from Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov weren't enough to complete the comeback in a 3-2 loss, the Thrashers' sixth in seven games.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win," Anderson said. "Our effort was way better. We played smarter. But it still wasn't good enough."
Despite the loss, Atlanta's two late goals with the man advantage were a major bright spot. The Thrashers came into Sunday's game having scored just one goal in their last 33 power-play chances.
"We finally started working," said Kovalchuk, who had eight goals in eight games against Tampa Bay last season. "We think that if we are on the power play it's time to rest, but we have to work twice as hard if we want to get some momentum."
Kovalchuk is scoreless in three games versus the Lightning this season. Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis has four goals and two assists as his team has beaten Atlanta twice.