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Goaltenders will play a big role in determining success of Tampa Bay Lightning

Forgive Lightning goaltenders Mike Smith and Dan Ellis if they have chips on their shoulders.

If you had heard and read all summer that you were the main question mark on a vastly improved team, you would be a little cranky, too.

"When a lot of negative things are written about you, you're anxious to prove people wrong," Ellis said.

Added Smith, sitting at his locker Friday at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon: "I'm here to prove to the team and guys in this room that this is going to be a great year."

It starts tonight when the Lightning faces the Thrashers at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Smith gets the call, which means he is first to feel the weight of expectations. Because regardless of Tampa Bay's upgrades — its top six forwards are among the league's best, the defense is better, the coaching is dynamic — the NHL still is all about goalies.

In other words, the Lightning will not get to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons unless Smith and Ellis stop the puck.

As Ellis said, "You still need your goaltender to be the best player on the ice."

• • •

Though Smith gets the start tonight, coach Guy Boucher called him and Ellis "equal," and it would surprise no one if they split games 50-50.

But Smith has been with the team two-plus seasons.

"And with two equal goaltenders, you go with the guy who was here last year," Boucher said. "He knows our barn, and we respect the fact he's been working with the team for several years now."

The goalies are equal, too, in that they are trying to revive their careers, and both have things to work on beyond the technical aspects of their games.

For Smith, 28, in the final year of a two-year, $4.4 million deal, it is maintaining focus even when things are going wrong.

Actually, not much has gone right for Smith since a December 2008 concussion short-circuited a brilliant start to 2008-09, and sometimes, he admitted, he made things worse.

"In the past I've been too emotionally involved in games and maybe tried to do too much," said Smith, 13-18-7 last season with a 3.09 goals-against average. "I've been one in the past to get riled up after a bad goal, to slam a stick or yell or scream. I've been trying to hold it together more this year and be more mature about it. Guys see that and notice, and ultimately it gives them confidence in you."

"I'm the opposite," Ellis said. "Sometimes I have a tendency to chill out a little too much. Maybe I've got to take a page out of Smitty's book and he has to take one out of mine. I have to elevate the emotions a little bit. You have to keep that mental edge."

Ellis, 30, who in July signed a two-year, $3 million deal, was 15-13-1 last season with the Predators, with a 2.69 goals-against average, but he lost the starting job to Pekka Rinne.

"You're in the underdog role, in a sense," Ellis said. "It's a role Smitty and I cherish."

• • •

Lightning players said they have no doubt Smith and Ellis can carry the load.

"I don't know how you answer a question like this," wing Sean Bergenheim said. "It's so obvious to us that we trust them."

"Full confidence," wing Marty St. Louis said. "Both goalies showed they can play at a high level in this league."

Besides, Boucher doesn't necessarily buy that teams live and die solely with their goalies.

"A lot more important is how we play in front of them," he said. "If you ask goaltenders to stop 40 pucks a night, no matter how good they are, you're not going to have a good team. You're asking your goalie to make miracles every night, which is impossible, and you wear them out. We're trying to get our goaltenders to have manageable games."

In Boucher's system, that means allowing only 20 shots, kind of a double-edged sword because so few shots could allow a goalie's mind to wander.

Regardless of the number, Ellis said, "You still need your goalie to control the momentum of the game and make key saves to keep your team in it or early saves to allow your team to adjust.

"So it's still definitely a goaltending league."

Starting tonight, we'll see how Tampa Bay's goalies measure up.

NOTES: Center Dominic Moore (groin) practiced and likely will play, Boucher said, though center Nate Thompson, with a groin problem that cropped up Thursday, is questionable. … About 1,500 tickets remained Friday.

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

Season opener:

Lightning vs. Thrashers

7:30 tonight; St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 1250-AM

atlanta goalie collapses: Ondrej Pavelec is hospitalized during its opener. 5C

Goaltenders will play a big role in determining success of Tampa Bay Lightning 10/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 12:38am]

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