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Lightning's Smith stops goals but dreams of them too

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Scoring a goal is always in the back of Mike Smith's mind.

The Lightning goaltender said it would be a "bonus" and "the main thing is to get the win." But one couldn't miss his glee as he ran through scenarios in which he would give it a try.

Two goals up late in a game with an empty net was obvious. More subtle was a one-goal lead, an empty net and a delayed penalty. If his shot were picked off, play would stop for the call.

"It's pretty exciting, not just for me, for everyone," Smith said of scoring. "So, if you get an opportunity, you never know."

Know this: If Smith, acquired from the Stars in the Brad Richards deal, works out, Tampa Bay will have an envied luxury, a goalie so skilled and confident in his puck-handling he becomes, in essence, another defenseman.

Smith, who turns 26 Saturday, is raw with just 52 NHL games, including eight for the Lightning in which he is 3-5-0 with a 2.39 goals-against average, a .910 save percentage and a shutout.

He needs to better understand situational play and when to leave the net. But Tampa Bay goaltenders coach Jeff Reese said Smith already is "second to none" among his peers in handling the puck; a mouthful considering the Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Islanders' Rick DiPietro and the Stars' Marty Turco.

"DiPietro probably would give him a run," defenseman Shane O'Brien said. "But just for confidence and having patience and being able to zip the puck and saucer it, he's probably the best in the league."

And a huge upgrade over Johan Holmqvist, who was a turnover waiting to happen.

Smith, a goalie since age 5 in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario, said he can't remember not handling the puck, and he scored for ECHL Lexington in 2002-03.

But after being tutored by Turco for parts of two seasons and simply firing pucks back and forth during practices, "It's gotten to a whole new level. I used to shoot it all the time, but I just rimmed it around the boards and hoped it got out. Now the first look is up to tape. If I don't have a play, I get it out of the zone."

"He can probably shoot it as hard as some of our D," Reese said. "Really, he can rifle the puck. & When he catches the puck, he gets it down so fast and so flat and then, boom, it's gone."

The advantages are enormous.

Instead of defensemen collecting pucks near the net with forecheckers on their necks, they can go to the corners for a pass. That quickens the transition.

Smith can impede power plays by cutting off passes rimmed around the boards. He can clear pucks. And he can spark fast breaks with long passes on the fly and, better yet, when opponents change lines.

The danger comes when an overzealous Smith is caught out of position.

Saturday against the Rangers, he needlessly joined a four-player scrum behind the net. In a 5-3 loss to the Predators, two misplays led to two goals.

"He'll learn when to do things and when not to," Reese said. "The good thing is when he makes a mistake, he comes right back out and is not afraid. You can't teach that."

Or his puck instincts.

Smith, who stopped 55 of 56 shots in winning his past two starts, nearly scored against New York when his shot at an empty net went, by his reckoning, about four feet wide: "I pushed it a bit, just like my golf game."

Reese said Smith, tonight's likely starter against the Sabres at HSBC Arena, could surpass his NHL records of three points and three assists in a game.

"If there's one who's going to do it, he can easily do it," Reese said. "He might even throw a goal in there, too."

"That," Smith said, "would be pretty cool."

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

Lightning's Smith stops goals but dreams of them too 03/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 8:10pm]
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