Goaltender Mike Smith starting to regain form for Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning goalie Mike Smith, making a save Dec.  9 against Edmonton, has stopped 89 of 93 shots in his past three games.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning goalie Mike Smith, making a save Dec.  9 against Edmonton, has stopped 89 of 93 shots in his past three games.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — There are expectations, and then there are unreasonable expectations.

Add to the latter what was expected of Lightning goaltender Mike Smith coming into this season.

Smith will not cop to that, of course; even taking into account the seven months he was off skates recovering from post-concussion syndrome, and that he did not face live action between Jan. 30 and a Sept. 18 preseason game.

"I expected of myself as much as anyone else," Smith said.

As it should be, goaltenders coach Cap Raeder said, but let's be real, "He missed half the year."

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, Smith took this long to find his game. He is making it seem it was worth the wait.

Smith, 27, is on a 4-1-1 streak with a 2.15 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. He was the league's No. 2 star for the week ending Sunday.

Compare that to Smith's first 19 games in which he was 5-9-5 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .894 save percentage.

"He's coming back to the level he was at last year," coach Rick Tocchet said.

That was when Smith dazzled with his puck-handling ability and athletic style, and he was team MVP for the first half of the season.

Smith played seven weeks after sustaining a concussion in a Dec. 2, 2008 game with the Flyers when then-teammate Vinny Prospal inadvertently kneed him in the head. Smith said he kept the symptoms to himself until he was pulled from a Jan. 30 game at home.

Fast-forward to this season. Antero Niittymaki, who was supposed to be the backup, started strong and stole playing time. Smith was uneven and in a seven-game stretch from Oct. 31 to Nov. 14 played just 27 minutes.

But he was a demon at practice, and that, Smith said, might have been what turned things around.

"Cap and I really worked hard. We'd go out there early every day and I battled in practice to take advantage of the time. It's just so important. It carries into games."

"His work ethic is 100 percent better than last year," Raeder said, adding, "A lot of this is confidence.

"What did you do? I left him alone. At this level, a lot of it is management. I told him, 'You haven't played badly. It's not to the level you want, but you've done a good job. It will come.' It's hard to be patient like that, but the cream comes to the top. That's what I told him."

Smith, who starts his seventh straight game tonight against the Sabres at HSBC Arena, said patience while playing helped him most.

"Early in the year I was thinking way too much about how I was stopping the puck instead of just stopping it," he said. "I was thinking how I was going to make the save, technically, and you can't play like that. It happens way too fast out there."

"The last three or four games it's been, 'Just stop the puck' …The pucks that were bouncing in seemingly turned around and started to hit my pads."

Like last season.

"I guess what it comes down to," Smith said, "is you're coming off an injury, and sometimes you're behind the eight ball coming into a new season."

Sounds reasonable.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Goaltender Mike Smith starting to regain form for Tampa Bay Lightning 01/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 8:28am]

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