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Pain and gain for Tampa Bay Lightning rookie defenseman Matt Smaby

TAMPA — Every now and then, Matt Smaby said, the pain in his right foot goes to 11.

It was an interesting acknowledgment because the question put to the Lightning rookie defenseman was to rate the pain on a scale of one to 10.

"Depends on the night," Smaby said. "It's always above five, and if I take a shot off the foot, upwards seven to eight."

When the number 11 was mentioned, he chuckled: "Yeah, sometimes it goes off the 10 scale."

Yet, Smaby keeps playing — he had a career-high 23 minutes, 30 seconds Friday against the Hurricanes — and he was expected in the lineup today against the Bruins at the St. Pete Times Forum.

That after all day wearing a boot that takes pressure off the foot, ice compression treatments to numb it, up to five electric stimulation treatments to speed healing and an oral painkiller.

"He's sucking it up for us," coach Rick Tocchet said.

And that, associate coach Mike Sullivan said, "says a lot for his character. He knows we're banged up at that position. We need guys to step up, and he wants to be that guy. … That goes a long way (with) the coaching staff as far as what players are willing to play through in order to help their team."

It is unclear if the problem is the foot or ankle; the team rarely provides specific injury information. Also unclear is when it happened. Smaby, 24, of Minneapolis, said it was two or three weeks ago, though he missed six of seven games Jan. 12-27 with an unspecific lower-body injury.

Regardless, Smaby, called up Dec. 27 from AHL Norfolk, averaged 20 minutes his past eight games. His season average: 16:07.

Sullivan, who handles the defense, said Smaby deserves it:

"He's light years ahead of where he was last year at this time. Last year he had a hard time competing in this league. Now he's established himself as someone who can be a serviceable defenseman.

"He makes good reads in defending the rushes. In our own end, he might be the best defenseman we have at stopping cycles, getting sticks on pucks and closing on people and using his strength to his advantage."

Smaby, the 41st overall pick of the 2003 draft, got more minutes at first because the blue line has so many injuries. But the 6-foot-5, 227-pounder took advantage and has four assists and is minus-5 in 21 games.

"It's been great to see a whole bunch of different situations and to play against some of the better players on the other team," he said. "The more I get out there, the more comfortable I feel."

Which is one reason he pushes to stay on the ice. Also, he said, the injury feels better in games, a combination of adrenaline and the skate binding his foot.

Tocchet said the injury is monitored to ensure it does not worsen: "I would never jeopardize a player's career."

And Smaby said, "It's not going downhill."

As for how it feels after games, he admitted, "Not very good. If I can take a day off and get rest and some kind of treatment, it feels pretty good. But after games and in practice, it's a battle."

It's an 11.

Note: The Blue Jackets claimed center Chris Gratton off waivers. Gratton had two assists in 18 games with the Lightning this season. In 24 games with AHL Norfolk, he had three goals and 12 assists.

Pain and gain for Tampa Bay Lightning rookie defenseman Matt Smaby 02/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 22, 2009 7:26am]
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