TAMPA — Anders Lindback should have been standing on the ice during the game wearing a mask Tuesday night, not sitting on a stool behind the bench wearing a ball cap.
This was a big game, more important than most in this lockout-shortened season.
The Lightning is in a stretch of playing six out of seven away from home. Tuesday was that lone home game, and it was against a crummy team. The Sabres went into the game with a four-game losing streak and the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
And in this game the Lightning really could not afford to lose, but did 2-1, who was its starting goalie? Not Lindback.
With the halfway point of the season rapidly approaching, it's time to face a disturbing fact: The Lightning does not have a No. 1 goaltender.
The offense is pretty good. The defense is serviceable. But to make the playoffs, the Lightning will have play eeny meeny miny mo with one goalie whose time to be a No. 1 has passed and another whose time has yet to arrive.
Some choice. Unless the Lightning makes a trade — and don't expect that — coach Guy Boucher is left trying figure out each night who might have the hot hand: 35-year-old Mathieu Garon or the 24-year-old Lindback. Problem is, most games neither seems like the obvious choice.
In fact, some nights — Tuesday is a perfect example — Boucher's choice is more about staying away from a goalie who is struggling than turning to one who his hot.
Here's a look at how the Lightning got here, where it is now and where it could go.
How it got here
The easy thing to do now is kick and curse Lindback for not being the No. 1 goalie, and there's no question he has struggled. Of the 49 goalies who have played at least five games this season, Lindback's goals-against average was 43rd in the NHL entering Tuesday and his save percentage 42nd.
He has problems with positioning. His ability to control rebounds has been an issue. And he has gone from a sturdy, confident goalie who seemed balanced and strong on his skates to one who too often flops around hoping the puck miraculously finds him.
In other words, he looks like a young goalie learning to be an NHL regular while straining to come to grips with the relentless mental demands of being a starter for the first time.
But here's the thing: As much as the Lightning wanted him to be the No. 1 goalie, Lindback simply isn't ready. Why should he be? This is a guy who had started all of 38 NHL games before this season. You expected him to look like Martin Brodeur after 14 more games?
Even Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was cautious when he acquired Lindback in June, saying, "We think he has the ability to become a No. 1 goalie soon, but it would be wrong to sit here today and say he's our No. 1 goalie. We think he has really good potential, and we're going to let him develop at the right pace."
Where it is now
The lockout didn't help. It zapped any patience the Lightning could have with Lindback. In a normal 82-game season, the Lightning could let Lindback develop at his own pace. It could afford to let him work out his kinks in games and sit him for a few games to find his footing. Not every game in an 82-game season is critical.
The potential for Lindback is there. Now all he needs is experience. But the lockout wiped out half the season and made every game important. Boucher has to nudge aside Lindback's development in favor of winning, and Lindback's experience has to wait.
Where it goes from here
There is still hope and belief that Lindback is the long-term No. 1 goalie. But as far as this season, the Lightning can only hope for a couple of things.
One is that the veteran Garon, who hasn't been that bad over the past two seasons when healthy and played well Tuesday night, catches fire. But there's a reason he has knocked around the NHL for 11 seasons and never really grabbed hold of a No. 1 job. The other hope is Lindback suddenly gets it and becomes a star.
The most likely scenario is that Garon and Lindback take turns going hot and cold and the Lightning makes the playoffs only if Boucher picks the right goalie on the right night.
Do not expect either Lindback or Garon to flat-out steal games like Buffalo's Ryan Miller did Tuesday. Neither has done that yet, and you don't get the feeling either is on the verge of doing so.
To make the postseason, the Lightning likely will have to win by scoring a ton of goals, playing extra-stingy defense and hoping the goalies just don't lose games.
That's how teams have to win when they don't have a No. 1 goalie.
Tom Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8544 and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.