UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Just like that, Dan Ellis is the Lightning's No. 1 goaltender.
He did not want it to happen this way, he said — by default, with Mike Smith going down during Monday's morning skate with a left-knee sprain.
On the other hand, Ellis knows an opportunity when he sees it.
"It's really unfortunate what happened to Smitty," Ellis said. "He turned out some great games there, and we were really starting to ride him. But the opportunity, as much as you are saddened for your teammate, you have to make the most of it."
Ellis will have two to three weeks, the estimate of Smith's recovery time, and he likely won't have to look over his shoulder. Backup Cedrick Desjardins has literally two days of NHL experience, and coach Guy Boucher said Ellis will get the bulk of the work, beginning tonight against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
It is a perfect scenario for the inconsistent Ellis, who needs to make an impression while Boucher and general manager Steve Yzerman decide if changes are needed in net on a team that seems headed for the playoffs.
"It's a great opportunity," Yzerman said. "Every goalie wants to play and have multiple games to get into a groove, and he's going to get that chance."
Ellis, 30, signed in July to a two-year, $3 million deal, and Smith have been at or near the bottom of the league in combined goals-against average and save percentage.
Ellis's problem has been soft goals at bad times. He is 9-5-4, but his 3.11 goals-against average is mediocre and his .879 save percentage is last in the league.
Still, Ellis was strong Monday against the Hurricanes with 21 saves in a 5-1 victory. Boucher called it Ellis' best game of the season because he made critical first-shot saves.
"It's high," teammate Steven Stamkos said of the team's confidence in Ellis, "especially after (Monday). He stepped up and made some huge saves. We have a lot of confidence in him. He's a proven goalie in this league."
Ellis said he has benefited from work on "technical stuff" with goaltenders coach Frantz Jean. But he also learned last week while watching Smith's two-game winning streak.
"Smitty showed me you have to go out there and have fun," Ellis said. "You have to battle. You have to stop the puck any way possible. It doesn't matter if you're in a perfect butterfly if you don't make the save. You have to go get anything on it you can."
"He's got character," Boucher said but acknowledged "the urgency for a goaltender to get his game to a normal level."
That's something Ellis did not do Dec. 11 against the Canucks, when a bad goal tied the score 4-4 with 5:47 left in the third period.
Tampa Bay won in overtime, but Ellis said the goal haunted him.
"I didn't sleep well for at least a few nights," he said. "But you learn from those mistakes, and you use that as an opportunity to build your focus and realize you can't take one second off in this league or it's in the back of the net and it might cost you your job."
Now he has a chance to secure one.
MOVE: With wing Ryan Malone day to day with an upper-body injury sustained against Carolina, left wing Johan Harju was recalled from AHL Norfolk.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.