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Lightning goalie Smith's fresh start is a good one

Mike Smith, clearing the puck against the Thrashers on Tuesday with the help of teammates Andrej Meszaros (14) and Jussi Jokinen (36), is 1-1-2 this season, but that is more a reflection of Tampa Bay’s 11 goals over its first six games.

Associated Press

Mike Smith, clearing the puck against the Thrashers on Tuesday with the help of teammates Andrej Meszaros (14) and Jussi Jokinen (36), is 1-1-2 this season, but that is more a reflection of Tampa Bay’s 11 goals over its first six games.

TAMPA — Mike Smith knows this is no time to say, "I told you so."

Not that he doesn't want to. But the Lightning goaltender said it's just too early to pat oneself on the back.

"It can turn around pretty quick," Smith said. "It's a long season. There are going to be bad times. You just have to work every night and be consistent."

Smith, 26, has been consistently good. He entered Wednesday tied with Buffalo's Ryan Miller with a league-best .943 save percentage and tied for fourth with a 1.92 goals-against average. He also has a shutout.

Quite a difference from last season, when Smith, acquired in February from the Stars in the Brad Richards deal, was thrown for a loop by the transaction and, he said, by the high-stress atmosphere created by then-coach John Tortorella.

"Absolutely, and I don't think I'd be the only one to say that," Smith said. "It's a fresh start, and everyone is going out there and just playing hockey.

"Guys aren't worried about making mistakes. When you're worried about that, it just snowballs into more mistakes. The big thing is going out there and not being afraid to mess up, and if you do, you learn from it."

Smith's record is 1-1-2, but that is more a reflection of Tampa Bay's 11 goals, fewer than two per game over six games.

"He's been awesome," coach Barry Melrose said. "If you're a competitor, you're always one of my favorite players. Mike Smith competes."

He flopped last season with a generally disinterested last-place Lightning team playing out the string, going 3-10-0 in 13 games with a 2.79 goals-against average and an .893 save percentage.

Tampa Bay still gave him a two-year, $4.4-million extension. But there were doubts around the league about a No. 1 who never had held such a position.

"It motivates you to prove everyone wrong," Smith said. "I know I can be an NHL starter."

The fit 6-foot-4, 218-pounder seems different, more confident, more aware of his positioning and, for the most part, more precise handling the puck.

"I didn't realize how athletic he is,'' said fellow goalie Olaf Kolzig, brought in to mentor and push Smith, and whose .920 save percentage in two games isn't shabby, either. "The way he moves around the net, for his size, is impressive to watch."

"It's all working," defenseman Mike Lundin said. "Hail Mary passes tape to tape, he's like a quarterback. He's a leader back there, too. He's more vocal."

In part, Smith said, because he is more comfortable. "Torts is a great coach, and he won a Cup, but he was hard on the guys, and everyone knew it," Smith said. "I think he wore on guys. It's nice to have a fresh start."

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

Lightning goalie Smith's fresh start is a good one 10/22/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 25, 2008 2:07pm]
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