TAMPA — It is early, and yet time is running out.
The season is still young, and already it feels rushed.
It is mid December, and the Lightning goaltenders are on the clock.
You could feel it Wednesday night when Tampa Bay returned home from yet another road trip filled with too many red lights and loud horns. You could sense it when teammates rushed onto the ice to greet their goaltender at the end of a successful shootout.
This is why Wednesday night's 2-1 victory against Atlanta was so big for the Lightning. This is why an impressive game in net was so critical for Mike Smith.
It does not excuse all the stinkers that preceded it, but it's a start. And it does not dramatically alter your perception of Tampa Bay's goaltending situation, but it gives you hope.
"The one thing with our goaltenders that we've talked about is consistency," said Lightning coach Guy Boucher. "Obviously, you can't have consistency if you never make it through that first step. So that was a good first step."
The Lightning has already survived the worst part of the league's toughest schedule. And it's beginning to look like it will survive a significant list of injuries, too.
Yet for all the momentum gained under a new regime, this season will ultimately hinge on whether the Lightning can survive its own goaltending.
This isn't just frustration, and it is not about panic. It is the simple realization that a potentially successful season could be undermined by one major shortcoming.
That is why Smith's performance against the Thrashers was so meaningful.
And that is why the next five weeks are so critical. The season is beginning to reach the point where a handful of bubble teams are going to determine whether they have a legitimate shot at the playoffs or whether they should begin trading away parts to plan for the future.
Which means Smith and Dan Ellis have that much time to prove to Lightning management that one or both of them can be counted on to take this team to the playoffs. Otherwise, you can probably count on a new goaltender in front of the net by February.
Already there is chatter about Evgeni Nabokov, who has left his team in Russia and is looking for a new NHL deal. I wouldn't completely dismiss the possibility, but Tampa Bay officials seem committed to giving Ellis and Smith a final chance to prove themselves.
Neither goaltender has tried to hide from his struggles, but Smith said it does him no good to worry about free agents or trades that may alter the direction of his career. At this point, he said it's difficult enough trying to find some kind of rhythm in the lineup.
"With Dan and myself, it seemed like we were in a stretch where if you lose you're out. It's tough to play like that," Smith said. "We had a talk with (goaltending consultant) Frantz (Jean) and the coach, and he said just go out there and play and whatever happens happens. If you play well and we lose, you'll probably get another start.
"It was a lot easier going into the game knowing that and not worrying if I lose I might not play. That's hard. It's like telling a guy on the power play if he doesn't score he's not going to be on the next power play. You're probably going to grip that stick a little tighter. So that was nice for me to go out there tonight and not worry about the result and just play my game."
It may be hard, but the truth is neither Smith nor Ellis had earned the right to stop looking over their shoulders.
You might argue that the excessive number of goals could have something to do with Tampa Bay's aggressive attitude on offense. And you might suggest there have been a handful of odd-man rushes that put the goaltenders in difficult spots.
But there is still no getting around this bottom line:
Tampa Bay's defense is second in the league in limiting shots, and yet the Lightning is last in the league in goals allowed. That disparity is so remarkable, it is almost hard to believe. That is, until you look at save percentages.
Smith and Ellis came into Wednesday's game with the worst save percentages in the NHL. Not just the worst combined save percentage, but the two worst individual percentages, too. Ellis was at .876. Smith was at .872. That was 44th and 45th out of 45 goaltenders.
Now as good as Tampa Bay's skaters have been, the Lightning does not need an All-Star in goal. A save percentage of .920 is not a requirement. A .910 would be fine. Even a .900 would suffice at this point.
Boucher and general manager Steve Yzerman seem willing to give Smith and Ellis a chance to prove they are capable of doing the job. But their patience is not limitless. It can't be. This team is too good not to give it the best chance possible of winning.
"They both want it. They both want it so badly. And I want it for them," Boucher said.
"I know it's for the team, but I care about what happens to those guys. I want them to have success."