TAMPA — Lightning players poured over the boards to mob goaltender Mike Smith as if he had won the Stanley Cup.
For almost a minute after a 2-1 victory over the Thrashers on Wednesday night at the St. Pete Times Forum that ended with a four-round shootout, they circled him, patted his head, made sure he knew they had his back.
"It was emotional," Smith said. "It's one thing to win in regulation and feel good. It feels different to win in a shootout; a big win for our team, a big win for myself, a real confidence boost."
Smith played his first game since allowing five goals on 22 shots Dec. 2 in Boston, and amid speculation that he and fellow goalie Dan Ellis are on general manager Steve Yzerman's clock.
He answered with 27 saves, four more in the shootout in which defenseman Victor Hedman, in his first NHL shootout, was the only Lightning player to score.
Sean Bergenheim's goal with 5:42 left in the second period tied the score 1-1 for Tampa Bay (17-10-4), which beat Atlanta for the eighth straight time and pushed past its Southeast Division foe into second place in the division, two points behind the Capitals.
But it was Smith's performance that was most noteworthy, especially for outdueling Atlanta's Ondrej Pavelec, one of the league's hottest goalies.
"He was great," said captain Vinny Lecavalier, who got last-minute clearance to play after missing 15 games because of a fractured knuckle. "He made some big saves. It was a really tight game, but he kept us in there."
Smith entered with a 3.57 goals-against average and an .872 save percentage, both near the bottom of the league. But after two weeks of work with goaltenders coach Frantz Jean on "fundamental stuff," Smith said he felt prepared.
"You could see it in his eyes, the way he talks and in his demeanor," coach Guy Boucher said.
"I was much more relaxed," Smith said. "Let the puck come to me. I have to play my game. I can't worry about anything else."
Not even speculation that Yzerman, if the goaltending doesn't solidify, might make changes.
"I haven't heard anything," Smith said. "I haven't read the papers. I don't even care. I can't do anything about it.
"I'm confident I can do a job here."
Confidence that has to be soaring after stopping Evander Kane on Atlanta's final shootout try.
"The team deserves a win like that from its goaltenders," Smith said. "I was happy to shut the door for these guys. They battled hard, and they deserved it."
No more than Smith deserved their congratulations.
|Lightning wins shootout 1-0|
First Period—1, Atlanta, Peverley 8 (Hainsey), 13:56 (sh). Penalties—Bogosian, Atl (hooking), 12:24; Tampa Bay bench, served by Purcell (too many men), 14:31; Hedman, TB (hooking), 17:42.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Bergenheim 6 (R.Jones, Kubina), 14:18. Penalties—Modin, Atl (interference), 4:51; Kubina, TB (hooking), 6:03; Bergenheim, TB (high-sticking), 12:09; Malone, TB (holding), 19:52.
Third Period—None. Penalties—None.
Shootout—Atlanta 0 (Little NG, Ladd NG, Peverley NG, Kane NG), Tampa Bay 1 (Bergenheim NG, Lecavalier NG, Purcell NG, Hedman G). Shots on Goal—Atlanta 11-9-4-4—28. Tampa Bay 15-11-4-1—31. Power-play opportunities—Atlanta 0 of 5; Tampa Bay 0 of 2. Goalies—Atlanta, Pavelec 10-6-3 (31 shots-30 saves). Tampa Bay, Smith 9-5-0 (28-27). A—14,441 (19,758).