TAMPA — The conversation with Mike Smith on Wednesday was about what he is doing right.
But the Lightning goaltender, without prompting, suddenly steered it head-on toward what he is doing wrong.
"I have to get a lot better handling the puck," he said. "I've got to clean that up, make simpler plays and be more decisive."
The cause of his consternation: four plays in Tuesday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Hurricanes in which he misplayed the puck or did not react quickly enough with it, creating scoring chances for the opposition.
"It ended up not costing us," Smith said, "but those plays just can't happen."
Coach Rick Tocchet and goaltenders coach Cap Raeder did not argue. But Raeder came to Smith's defense after being told of a seeming dig by Carolina coach Paul Maurice, who after the game praised his goalie, Cam Ward, by referencing Smith.
"You saw one of the most active goaltenders in the NHL at the other end playing the puck," Maurice said. "We like the way Cam plays it."
"To each their own," Raeder said. "It's just like (Tampa Bay backup Antero Niittymaki). I don't want Nitty to be Smitty. It just so happens Smitty has the ability and the instincts to be able to play that way."
Smith's trademark is his ability to handle the puck, and he is not afraid to roam to do it.
When it works, it is a huge advantage. Long passes can catch the opposition in line changes. A smart pass to a defenseman can short-circuit a forecheck.
"It's pretty awesome," defenseman Andrej Meszaros said.
Said Raeder: "(Smith) has tremendous instincts with the puck."
Instinct is one thing; execution is another. So, when Smith put a puck on the stick of Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour, the Lightning held its breath.
That Brind'Amour's shot went awry was little consolation.
"When a goalie handles it that much, they are going to make the odd mistake, and when (Smith) does, it stands out," Raeder said. "But I have no problem with him handling the puck. It's a real strength for him and our defense."
"The good thing is he knows he has to quiet his game down a little bit," Tocchet said. "I know a lot of people get upset about it, but we can't take that out of his game. There's more reward in him doing that than risk. But if he does like he did (Tuesday), the risk factor skyrockets."
In other words, when Smith faces the Devils tonight in the Lightning's home opener at the St. Pete Times Forum, you won't see a change in strategy. What you should see is consistency as he regains his hands after seven months off the ice because of post-concussion syndrome.
"The more you do it, the more comfortable you feel," he said. "And doing it in exhibitions is totally different than regular season. The pace has picked up. Players are on top of you a lot quicker. You have to make more decisive decisions with the puck. As the season progresses, I'll definitely improve on that."
As for Maurice's little dig, Smith said, "That's fine. I play my style of game, Cam plays his. I'm not going to say much more than that."
Probably the right thing to do.
SMABY TO NORFOLK: Defenseman Matt Smaby, a healthy scratch in Tampa Bay's first two games, has been sent to AHL Norfolk on a conditioning assignment that can last up to 14 days. He remains on Tampa Bay's 23-player roster.
CHANGING LINES: Right wing Stephane Veilleux practiced on center Vinny Lecavalier's line and could play there against the Devils. Steve Downie, who played the first two games with Lecavalier, took Veilleux's spot on Zenon Konopka's fourth line.
Tocchet did not have a specific criticism of Downie, who has zero points and three shots, but said Veilleux "showed some energy" against the Hurricanes.
"And like I said before," Tocchet said, "if you're hustling, you're going to get the chance."
FOSTER PRACTICES: Defenseman Kurtis Foster, out with a lower-body injury, practiced for the first time since being injured Saturday against the Thrashers. Foster was to see a doctor Wednesday. He said he hoped to be ready for Saturday's game with Carolina.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]