BRANDON — Was that Mike Smith? No. Was it?
Was that the Lightning's No. 1 goaltender ducking out a back door of the Ice Sports Forum on Friday after escaping the trainer's room by camouflaging himself with a hanging blue curtain?
"No comment," trainer Tommy Mulligan said, a smile on his face.
Seriously, though, Mulligan added, "He just didn't want to talk to anyone."
What Smith doesn't want to talk about is the unspecified upper-body injury that has kept him out of the past two games and will do the same tonight against the Islanders at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Did he have a setback? Is he getting better? Is he status quo?
General manager Brian Lawton on Wednesday indicated Smith would be ready by now. But Smith did not practice Friday, and Mulligan admitted that pinpointing the injury has been "a little bit" of a mystery. He declined to elaborate.
"You're right," coach Rick Tocchet said when asked if he understood why there would be questions.
"But the one thing with Smitty is he is in good shape. I don't know how long it will take once he gets back on the ice to get into a game. I don't think it will take that long. But, yeah, we're looking sooner than later to when he will be on the ice doing stuff."
Talk about bad timing.
Keeping Tampa Bay, loser of four straight, even remotely in the playoff conversation hinges on a six-game homestand that begins against New York.
And though Mike McKenna, who tonight gets his second straight start in net, played extremely well in his NHL debut Wednesday against the Penguins, entering crucial games without a No. 1 goalie is a disadvantage.
"A hundred percent," center Jeff Halpern said of how it changes the dynamic. "Smitty is our best player. He's carried the team at times and gives us a ton of confidence and just elevates the way the team plays. For any goalie to come in after that, it absolutely changes the makeup of our team."
"For the defense, it's a confidence level that you have the best goalie behind you," defenseman Lukas Krajicek said. "If Smitty is not there, you don't know how (the goalie) is going to talk to you or play the puck. He helps so much when he plays the puck."
The last we saw Smith, he was beating up water bottles and smashing sticks after being pulled from a Jan. 30 game against the Flyers.
Since then he has been pretty much a ghost to anyone but teammates and has not returned phone messages.
Hey, Vinny, you hearing anything about Smith's situation?
Captain Vinny Lecavalier shrugged as he walked through the locker room, though he joked there was a "secret door" through which Smith sneaked from the building.
"I'd love to tell you what's going on with him," left wing Matt Pettinger said. "But I haven't heard anything, to be honest with you."
Said right wing Marty St. Louis: "I know he's not healthy enough to play. That's all I know."
What we do know is Smith is a master of disguise.
As he left the trainer's room Friday, he shrouded himself as best he could behind a curtain that leads to the locker room and quickly ducked into a doorway leading to the back of the building and the players' parking lot.
"It's hard on him," Tocchet said. "He wants to be out there."
He just doesn't want to talk about it.
NOTES: Defenseman Andrej Meszaros (upper left arm) did not practice, and Mulligan said his chance of playing tonight was "slim." … Forward Jussi Jokinen, who cleared waivers Thursday, still has not been assigned to AHL Norfolk. Could a trade be brewing?
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]