NEW YORK — For Mike Smith, Friday's 13-hour drive from Norfolk, Va., to Tampa, in a packed car with pregnant wife Brigitte and golden retriever Berkley, was anything but relaxing.
The ride itself was fine, though Smith mostly stayed behind the wheel rather than fold his 6-foot-4 frame into a passenger seat pushed forward because of all the stuff in the back.
It was the uncertainty that drove him to distraction. Smith, with AHL Norfolk since Feb. 5, was on re-entry waivers. If he got through, he would be back with the Lightning. If claimed, he would be with his third team in four years. "My mind was in a million places," Smith said. "I was like, 'Where am I going? Where am I going to be?' I have a new family. It's a lot to go through mentally."
In contrast, convincing the Lightning — and any other team shopping for a free agent goalie this summer — that he is worth a look is straightforward. "You just have to do your job and play up to your capability," said Smith, who was not claimed and is Dwayne Roloson's backup. "When I do that, I'm tough to beat."
Smith, 28, acquired in February 2008 from the Stars in the Brad Richards deal and whose two-year, $4.4 million contract runs out after the season, has reason to be confident.
He was 1-4-0 with Norfolk, but his 1.83 goals-against average and .924 save percentage indicate he played well. And though his numbers with Tampa Bay are uneven (10-5-0 with a too-high 3.20 goals-against average and too-low .883 save percentage), he was solid in his last two games before being demoted.
"One thing about Mike, his work ethic is always impeccable," goaltenders coach Frantz Jean said. "The games he played (in Norfolk) … he managed the pace of the play very well by having very effective rebound control. He gave them a chance to win every night."
Less thinking and more just stopping the puck was a big adjustment, Smith said. Not that he's throwing out his fundamental base: "That has been a huge part of my career, and I still take pride in that. But when it comes to games, sometimes your instincts have to take over."
"That's the challenge for any athlete," Jean said. "I'm not going to say 'Just react,' because you still have to be conscious of what you're doing. But it's more of a deliberate delivery. I think he's found that comfort zone. Now he just has to exploit it."
With Roloson expected to start today against the Rangers in New York and Wednesday against the Devils in Newark, N.J., Smith's first start likely will be Thursday at Boston. The last time Smith played there, Dec. 2, he allowed five goals on 22 shots before being pulled in an 8-1 loss.
Teammates are confident. "I believe in him," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "I always have."
As for Smith, what came before or that he is auditioning for next season's job is just white noise.
"I'm just excited about being back here, back with the guys who I've gotten so close to and helping this team win," he said.
"He was like a dog wagging his tail coming back in," coach Guy Boucher said. "When you lose something, sometimes you realize how much you had. I think he's at that stage right now."
Minor moves: Left wing Johan Harju was reassigned to AHL Norfolk, and goalie Curtis McElhinney was put on waivers.