TAMPA — Lightning goaltender Dan Ellis said his first priority Wednesday, when he went off the bench in relief of struggling Mike Smith, was to "kill the momentum."
"Try to contain every puck. You don't want to give up rebounds. You don't want to give up a soft one right away. You want to keep that puck out for as long as possible to give your team a chance to get their legs underneath them."
Ellis did just that, stopping all 24 shots he faced while Tampa Bay turned a 3-1 first-period deficit into a 5-3 victory over the Penguins at the St. Pete Times Forum.
But as important as the win — which entering Thursday had the Lightning (6-2-1) tied with the Canadiens atop the Eastern Conference — was that for the first time this season, a Tampa Bay goalie, in a what-you're-made-of situation, made a definitive statement in response to those who say the team's goaltending is its biggest question mark.
"Dan Ellis played great," coach Guy Boucher said. "He made a lot of hard shots look easy."
Smith and Ellis have had a tough go. Entering Thursday, their combined 3.30 goals-against average was 25th in the 30-team league.
Though Smith is 4-0-0, his 3.59 goals-against average was tied for 35th of 37 goalies listed by the NHL. His .868 save percentage was 35th. Ellis' 2.95 goals-against average was 25th. His .897 save percentage was 33rd.
In other words, the Lightning's 32 goals, which entering Thursday tied the Blackhawks for the league lead, has covered a lot of defensive sins.
So when Ellis came in cold and held up against one of the league's most explosive teams, it established credibility in the locker room — "To have Elly come in and play solid and give us a chance to mount that comeback was huge," right wing Adam Hall said — and provided himself some relief.
Ellis said that his ups and downs, and that Smith is undefeated, were "a little bit of a sting to your confidence."
"But that's part of being a professional athlete. You have to put that behind you. Maybe I was starting to dwell on that, but (Wednesday) I decided to go out there and play an aggressive game, play a solid game and let it fall where it does."
Ellis' game is a work in progress. He said goaltenders coach Frantz Jean has changed "a lot of things," including playing closer to the net so Ellis is in better position to stop rebound shots. Jean also wants Ellis to be comfortable staying on his knees when appropriate, rather than always standing up after a save.
"A lot of times when pucks come through traffic, they generally go in at the bottom of the net," Ellis said. "So, if you take that extra second and maybe be a little patient on your knees and flair your legs out, you'll get hit a lot more with pucks; take away that bottom part of the net and force them to beat you high."
But Ellis was quick to dole out credit for Wednesday's win.
"We picked up big-time defensively," he said. "That was probably the simplest game I had to play with this organization just based on positioning, sticks on pucks and keeping shots to the perimeter."
That's not quite what Smith got during his 12:15 of action, in which he allowed three goals on seven shots but faced two two-on-one breakaways, both of which resulted in goals.
"We just have to play better in front of Smitty," Hall said. "We can't put him in situations like that. We have to do a better job playing as a unit in front of him."
Even so, Smith must be better.
"It's his first outing where it really didn't go his way," Boucher said. "He'll be okay. It happens. I have all the confidence in the world in Smitty. I talked to him, and it's all about the next game."
And the next chance for a Lightning goalie to make a statement.
WAIVER WIRE: The Lightning put Mike Vernace on waivers. The defenseman has zero points and is minus-2 with an average 9:06 of ice time in seven games.