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Has Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Mike Smith turned a corner?

TAMPA — One moment the puck was on Mike Smith's stick, the next the Lightning goaltender lifted it down the ice toward an empty net.

It was an impulsive move, but as Smith said after Monday's 3-1 victory over the Bruins, "We're up two goals with under 20 seconds left. I thought, 'What the heck? If it doesn't go in, we're going to waste some time off the clock.' "

That the shot was well wide is beside the point. Had it been a week or so ago, Smith said, he likely wouldn't have even tried.

"Obviously," he said, "I've gained some confidence."

But has he turned a corner? Tonight's game against the Rangers at the St. Pete Times Forum might be an indicator.

Smith's inconsistency has kept him from getting more than two straight starts this season. But with consecutive wins in which he was sharp, Smith likely will get the nod again.

It has been a frustrating season for Smith, 28, whose contract is up, and after a year and a half of injuries and underachievement needs to pad his resume.

Dispelling the perception goaltending is Tampa Bay's weak link would be satisfying, too.

Smith is 7-3-0, but his 3.17 goals-against average and .887 save percentage are among the league's worst, indicating a potent offense has bailed him out.

But Smith won starts Saturday and Monday against the Sabres and Bruins and won Thursday against the Flyers in relief of Dan Ellis, stopping 69 of the past 71 shots he has faced for a .972 percentage.

"I feel pretty good," Smith said. "I can't take all the credit. I'm making saves, but our D has been playing tremendous."

True, but there also has been a subtle shift in Smith's attitude that perhaps began two weeks ago with an observation by teammate and friend Marty St. Louis.

"He's like, 'Where's that Smitty we know and love?' " Smith said. " 'You had that swagger. You were playing the puck. You can tell the confidence you had.' "

"You see a guy who is down, you try to pick him up a bit and put things in perspective and to not forget he's a pretty good goalie," St. Louis said. "Just an everyday talk with a teammate."

There also was the realization by the coaches that Smith's personality doesn't fit a standard mold.

"Mike Smith is an aggressive individual, an emotional one," coach Guy Boucher said. "What we wanted to do, and what he wanted to do, is make sure he kept his structure. We probably asked too much in that you can't take an emotional guy and make him an unemotional guy and just a task-oriented guy.

"What the coaching staff and he are focusing on is getting back to giving it to the other team, not just taking it just to be structured."

Smith said the concept basically boils down to "not waiting for something to happen."

"It's a way of saying, 'Shoot it at me, beat me,' " he said. "Top of (the crease). No pucks through you. Make them beat you with a good shot. At the end of the day, if they beat you off the bar or a back-door tap-in, don't beat up yourself too much about it."

It seems to be working.

"The last two games he's been outstanding," center Steven Stamkos said. "He's been an inspiration to all of us just how hard he's been working, and good for him."

"Coach has told me just worry about the next shot," Smith said.

A shot at an empty net will take care of itself.

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

. Tonight

Lightning vs. Rangers

When/where: 7:30; St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 620-AM

Key stats: Lightning C Steven Stamkos has either led or tied for the league points lead for 34 straight days. … The Rangers lead the league with 376 blocked shots and 656 hits. … New York RW Ryan Callahan leads with 91 hits. D Dan Girardi leads with 68 blocks. … The Lightning is 16-14-2 with three ties against the Rangers in Tampa.

Has Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Mike Smith turned a corner? 11/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 9:18pm]

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