TAMPA — Mixed in with the many ways Lightning goaltenders Mike Smith and Dan Ellis are working on their games is this little exercise, courtesy of coach Guy Boucher:
"Guys," Boucher said he told his embattled tandem, "don't read the papers. The best thing is not to listen or read anything."
"What you want them to focus on," goaltenders coach Frantz Jean said, "is everything they can control."
Out of their control this week has been media speculation the team might make a play for free-agent goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
General manager Steve Yzerman did not completely knock down the possibility and even indicated Smith and Ellis, who entered Thursday with a combined 3.34 goals-against average that was 29th in the 30-team league and an .875 save percentage that was at the bottom, are kind of on the clock.
Add season-long criticism of their play by local and national reporters, and it is no wonder the pair takes the coaches seriously.
"I just try not to read it," Ellis said Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum. "It doesn't do any good. Whenever you're trying to do a task or make improvements, the last thing you want to read is someone who thinks you can't."
Said Smith: "I can't control what everyone is saying. I can't control what everyone else is doing. I have to control what I'm doing, helping this team win. That's all I can do."
He also reminds, unprompted, that he, at 9-5, and Ellis, at 8-5-4, have winning records and the Lightning, at 17-10-4 and with 38 points in 31 games, is off to its best start.
Mostly, though, there is behind-the-scenes work with Jean.
Smith got two weeks' worth after allowing five goals on 22 shots in a Dec. 2 loss at Boston before getting Wednesday's start against the Thrashers and earning a 2-1 shootout victory.
With Smith starting again Saturday against the Sabres, Ellis is in for the same intensive study.
"Outstanding attitude, outstanding work ethic," Jean said of the goalies. "That's certainly one of the things we're pleased about is the way they have reacted to adversity. Nobody has come in with their heads down or pouting lips. It's all about, 'What can we improve on and help the team win?' "
For Smith, 28, it is controlling emotions and limiting high-risk plays by restraining his natural urge to play the puck. For Ellis, 30, it is eliminating bad goals at the worst times.
For both, Boucher said, it is to "trim things down to their simplest expression. That's hard to manage because you're focusing on everything else: how you're disappointed in yourself, what your coaches think, what the media thinks, what the people think. If you start thinking of all that, you throw yourself everywhere. The reality is it's a task. Focus on the task."
"We're pulling together to prove people wrong," Ellis said. "Maybe that's the spark that changes things. You can use negative information in two ways: You can use it to get you down or to motivate you to get better. It's motivating both Smitty and I to improve our games."
Smith showed vast improvement against the Thrashers with 27 saves in regulation plus four in the shootout. Ellis called it "the start of the turnaround."
"I said to Frantz, 'I want to go back to having fun in net,' " Smith said. "Last game, I enjoyed playing. I'm going to enjoy it and have fun. Whatever happens, happens."
Who knows if it gets in the paper?
Move: Left wing Johan Harju was sent to AHL Norfolk.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.