TAMPA — Mike Smith said he has wanted to be an NHL goaltender since he was 3 years old, playing hockey in his family's driveway.
Twenty-three years later, as the Lightning's No. 1, a job the team announced is his to lose, Smith said he has no intention of blowing it.
"I know I can play in the NHL," he said. "I know I can be a starter. I'm here to prove to the organization I belong here."
Smith, of Kingston, Ontario, took a solid step in that direction Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum with 38 saves in a 3-2 victory over the Rangers in his first preseason action.
It was one of those games that teams with good goalies win; Tampa Bay was outshot 40-18, including 11-2 in the third period.
"He was very much under control," goaltenders coach Cap Raeder said. "He wasn't doing a lot of scrambling. He had a nice presence about him. He's a competitor, and he certainly has great instincts for the position."
Smith, who had no chance on New York's goals, knows there are doubts he couldn't possibly erase in one preseason game.
He never before has been a No. 1, and he didn't exactly light it up after being acquired in February from the Stars as the centerpiece of the Brad Richards deal; he was 3-10 in 13 games with a 2.79 goals-against average and an .893 save percentage.
Even so, the Lightning signed Smith to a two-year, $4.4-million extension to keep him from perhaps becoming a free agent after this season, in which he will make $950,000. It was a show of faith but also a calculated risk.
"That's the new NHL," coach Barry Melrose said. "He comes in here, plays 75 games and becomes the best goalie in the league, and we lose him. You have to have faith in your people. You have to believe in Mike Smith. We thought he was a great guy and would become the goalie we envisioned, so we took a chance. … I think we'll be rewarded."
Smith said he focused his summer workouts on flexibility and injury resistance. He gained 7 pounds of muscle and now has 218 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame.
With the intimidating John Tortorella fired in June, he also has a new coach.
"It's a fresh start for everyone," Smith said. "Not everyone is out there gripping their sticks and white-knuckling it. They're not thinking out there. They're just playing the game. That makes a world of difference.
"Barry is a guy, yeah, you can make mistakes. He's probably going to get upset. Mistakes are part of the game. But with a guy not down your back all the time, it's nice to be able to play and have fun."
Smith played with confidence against the Rangers, showing off his puck-handling skills and, by Raeder's count, making eight passes to the defense that resulted in breakouts.
"It's a whole 'nother dimension getting out of our zone," Raeder said. "He handled the puck with a purpose, and that excited me."
"This is the chance I've been waiting for," Smith said. "I've waited my whole life to be a No. 1 guy."
Well, 23 years, anyway.