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Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher makes bold call in starting Mike Smith

BOSTON

The decision was only made the day before.

It was the explanation that had been evolving for months and months.

When he stripped away the emotion, and eliminated the ramifications and risk, Lightning coach Guy Boucher was left with one simple thought:

Mike Smith had earned a shot to be Tampa Bay's goaltender in Game 5.

He earned it by keeping his cool and throwing himself into his work when he was sent to the minors. And he earned it by playing brilliantly as a spot starter down the stretch.

He earned it by doing everything he was asked, right up until the moment that Boucher called him into his office after the morning skate on Monday and gave him the news.

"As a leader I have to give to people who are deserving," Boucher said. "If (Nate) Thompson has a great season and (Adam) Hall has a great season and (Sean) Bergenheim and (Dominic) Moore, it's because they don't feel like they're third- and fourth-liners. They feel like they've contributed. They're allowed to be better than just being pegged. And it's the same for goaltenders.

"Smith's contributions have been tremendous for us, and he's one of the reasons we had that many points, and 46 wins. I just felt he deserved to play in that game."

By night's end, Boucher was vindicated even if he wasn't rewarded.

The Lightning lost 3-1 to the Bruins in Game 5 Monday night, and it was because Boston goaltender Tim Thomas was significantly better than Smith.

Which is not the same thing as saying Smith was the reason the Lightning lost. Smith was more than solid in his first start of the playoffs, it's just that Thomas was incredible.

So where does that leave the Lightning today?

Boucher wouldn't say, but my guess is back in Dwayne Roloson's hands.

Part of the appeal of starting Smith in Game 5 was that Boucher was able to wait until the last minute to say anything. He spent two days hinting that Roloson would get the call, even though Boucher had made up his mind by the time he got to Boston on Sunday.

He allowed the team to go through its usual morning skate routine Monday and then summoned Smith to his office just before the bus left to return to the hotel for lunch.

Most of the players were not even aware of the change in net until they came back to the TD Garden a couple of hours before Game 5.

"I wanted him to sleep (Sunday) night," Boucher explained. "I know guys in that situation if you tell them too early, they'll play the game in their head the night before."

Smith was caught completely by surprise by the move, which is exactly what Boucher wanted. Since the element of surprise has been eliminated, it probably makes sense for the Lightning to return to Roloson's steady hand.

"I felt Roli needed just a little breather," Boucher said. "I still have all the confidence in the world in him."

Here's another reason for going back to Roloson:

He has never lost an elimination game.

Roloson was faced with elimination in three consecutive games when he was with Minnesota and won all three. He was in the same situation with the Lightning in the first round against Pittsburgh this year, and again won three in a row.

In those six elimination games, Roloson has given up an average of 1.50 goals. And if the Lightning is to live beyond this week, it will need to survive two more games in the face of elimination.

As for Smith, he may have earned another contract with the Lightning even if he doesn't get another start this season.

For the entire package is still enticing. Smith, 29, is big and athletic. He has skills out the wazoo. He works hard and is popular among his teammates.

The fatal flaw — and there is no other way to describe it — has been his ability to keep his focus in the long haul.

Smith can look like a franchise goaltender one night, and give up a half-dozen goals on the next. His potential is the reason the Lightning has given him so many chances to earn a starting role, and his inconsistency is the reason he keeps handing the job back.

One game in the playoffs may not have changed that reputation, but the overall picture looks brighter for the pending free agent.

Smith knew the importance of this game, both for his team and for his future. He was so startled by Boucher's decision, he didn't even call his parents or wife when he got back to the hotel Monday afternoon.

"He was very encouraging when he told me. He was serious, but he did it with a smile," Smith said. "It gave me confidence that he had the faith in me to put me in there."

And did Smith live up to the coach's confidence?

"I think I did."

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher makes bold call in starting Mike Smith 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 1:46am]
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