BOSTON — Steve Yzerman is not about knee-jerk reactions.
The Lightning general manager had just watched his goaltenders get abused by the Bruins in an 8-1 debacle Thursday at TD Garden. But instead of spewing fire, Yzerman provided cover.
He also quashed speculation of changes despite Mike Smith and Dan Ellis being statistically one of the NHL's worst combinations, with an .878 save percentage that entered Friday at the bottom of the 30-team league and a 3.35 goals-against average that was 29th.
"They have the ability to play better, and we need them to play better," Yzerman said. "We'll provide them the right environment to get better, and we'll keep sticking with this for the time being."
Truth be told, Yzerman's hands are somewhat tied when it comes to making personnel adjustments in net. No one is ready in the minors, and trade values for Smith and Ellis are understandably low while early season asking prices around the league are high.
It also is only 26 games into a season in which the rejuvenated Lightning (14-9-3) is one of the league's feel-good stories, so it behooves Yzerman to be supportive.
He acknowledged that Tampa Bay's system, which allows an average 27.7 shots per game, second in the league entering Friday, is tough on goalies who might not see a shot for a while and then "all of a sudden a flurry."
He said both goalies have "good potential" and "have had some good games."
But Yzerman is not blind to decisions he will have to make, if not in-season, then during the summer.
"At this point, I want to reserve judgment," he said. "We are still waiting to figure it out because it's been a little up and down."
Consider Smith, who is 8-5-0 with a 3.57 goals-against average, and entering Friday had a league-worst .872 save percentage. From Nov. 18-24 he was 4-0-0 with a 2.14 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and eight goals allowed. In his past two outings, he is 0-2-0 with a 7.71 goals-against average, a .775 save percentage and nine goals allowed, including five on 22 shots against the Bruins.
Ellis is 6-4-3 with a 3.02 goals-against average, an .888 save percentage and two shutouts. But only once has he played well enough to get three straight starts, and he was pulled after 15:34 of the third.
After allowing three goals on 10 shots in relief against Boston, Ellis said he has "no doubt, personally" he and Smith are the right goalies for Tampa Bay.
"We've both put some wins together and had some big games, but … consistency has to be there. You can't doubt yourself. You have to go out there and play your game. You've got to let decisions fall in other places."
But Yzerman wants the goalies to make the decision for him.
"We're looking for both to take it and run with it," he said. "Hopefully, at least one of them will."
Perhaps that begins tonight against the Avalanche at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. There was no word on the starter Friday, though the directive will be the same.
"They can't lose their attitude, their work ethic, desire to get better. Just say, 'It happened.' That's it," coach Guy Boucher said of losing to Boston. "You've got to recognize it and bounce back. To bounce back is the only way to gain confidence from anybody."
"It's a huge year for me, for a lot of guys," said Smith, in the last year of a two-year, $4.4 million deal. "It's a new owner and a new coaching staff. We have to win these guys over, come to the rink, be professional, work hard to be better.
"That's all you can do. The decision will be up to them at the end of the season."
Or perhaps before.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]