RALEIGH, N.C. — The season is about trust. Or maybe faith is the better word.
Either way, it's about believing in something that defies common sense. And that is essentially what Tampa Bay is doing by tying its fortunes to a goaltender of a certain age.
In four days, Dwayne Roloson turns 42. It's hard to say what that means from a historic perspective because the NHL has rarely seen cases such as this. Most goaltenders don't make it this long, and most coaches wouldn't trust them if they did.
But the Lightning believes in Roloson. Believes in his work ethic. Believes in his skill. Believes in his body, even if nature threatens to get in the way.
"If it was a risk," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said, "we wouldn't have taken it."
Maybe by January, the story will be different. Maybe by April, the Lightning will regret not going in a different direction in the offseason.
But on the first night of the 2011-12 season, the Lightning's faith in Roloson was rewarded. It was, in fact, one of the main differences between victory and defeat.
For when the skaters lost their way early in Friday night's 5-1 victory against Carolina, Roloson kept the night from spinning out of control.
Shot after shot came his direction in the first period. At one point, the Hurricanes took 14 shots to Tampa Bay's three. Roloson made a diving glove save to his left to rob Eric Staal. He blocked a direct shot from Brandon Sutter on a breakaway and then blocked Tim Gleason's rebound shot.
By the time the onslaught ended, Roloson was the difference between a 1-0 deficit and something that could have been much, much worse.
"He's one of the best professionals I've ever seen," Marty St. Louis said. "I've played with some older guys before, but the stuff he's doing at his age is remarkable."
No one questions Tampa Bay's ability to score. You put St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos on the same team, and the goals will eventually come.
And maybe the defense isn't as strong as some other teams, but aggressive pursuit covers up some of the shortcomings in speed and skill.
It is at goaltender where some people have concern. It is not Roloson's talent that is in doubt, but his ability to withstand the demands of a season. In the past 35 years, Dominik Hasek is the only NHL goaltender to play 40 games or more at this age.
The Lightning does not have a set number of games that Roloson is expected to play, but you can assume he will likely start a majority of the 82-game season.
Does that mean 45? Does that mean 55? It's fluid at this point. Roloson has averaged better than 55 starts the past three seasons, but he's going to have to make some concessions to age, particularly if the Lightning expects to play deep into the summer.
Mathieu Garon was signed in the offseason as Tampa Bay's No. 2 goaltender and will get his first start tonight when the Lightning plays at Boston. He will also take some of the burden away from Roloson when the games begin to pile up later.
A minute or so after saying Roloson's return was not a risk, Boucher was asked if perhaps a calculated risk was the better term.
"Yes. Absolutely. That's exactly what it is," Boucher said. "It is a calculated risk because, even if at some point he is losing a little ground because of whatever, whether it's fatigue, wear and tear, whatever, we're going to be able to help him.
"And he brings so many other things. It ain't just about his performance on our team. It's about everything else he brings."
On this night, he brought stability and calm when the Lightning needed it most. He even brought a little toughness when things got silly in the third period.
At one point, Roloson knocked down Sutter when he ventured too close to the net then got put on the ice himself by Staal on a play that drew a goaltender interference penalty and led to a goal that put the Lightning up 3-1.
If his body was worn out by the night's adventures, Roloson never showed it. By the time Lightning players were clowning around the locker room after the game, you might have wondered if Tampa Bay's faith might not seem so misguided after all.
Roloson says he has been preparing for this moment from the time in the offseason when general manager Steve Yzerman called to talk contract.
"His question to me was, 'Do you want to play again?' I said, 'Yes,' and we went from there," Roloson said. "I didn't even really think about it. I was focused on playing this year no matter what, and I'm happy that I was able to stay with this great organization.
"Age is just a number, but I give the organization a lot of credit for sticking by me and trusting that I'll be able to do it."
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]