OTTAWA — Goaltender Antero Niittymaki is playing very well right now. Mike Smith, not so much, especially on the road.
For coach Rick Tocchet, the equation is simple.
"He's winning," he said of Niittymaki, "so you keep playing him."
Niittymaki makes his second straight start tonight against the Senators at Scotiabank Place. What is intriguing is the assignment seems open-ended even after Tocchet has been adamant that Smith is Tampa Bay's No. 1.
But desperate to stay close to a playoff spot while working out some well-publicized offensive kinks, Tocchet has no choice.
"Right now," he said, "you have to keep playing the hot goaltender."
Clearly that is Niittymaki, 29, signed during the summer as a free agent to be Smith's backup.
Check the numbers:
Niittymaki is 3-1-1 with a 1.95 goals-against average and, entering Wednesday, a league-best .940 save percentage. On the road, where Tampa Bay is 1-4-1, Niittymaki is 1-1-0 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
Smith, 27, is 2-3-3 with a 3.64 goals-against and an .879 save percentage. He is 0-3-1 on the road with a 5.38 goals-against average and an .826 save percentage.
"Obviously, you look at the numbers, and they are not where they need to be," Smith said. "But I feel like I've played some good hockey this year. I'm disappointed with the consistency, but it's a long year, and fortunately, Niitty has played well when I haven't played so well, and he's giving the team a chance to win, and we need that right now."
Especially on the road, where the Lightning got its first win Tuesday, 2-1 over the Maple Leafs, behind 40 Niittymaki saves. That was after he stole a point for the team in a 2-1 home loss to the Devils by making 37 saves, including one on a penalty shot and three in a shootout.
Between those games, Smith was pulled after five goals on 18 shots in a 6-2 loss at Philadelphia.
It is not all on Smith, who was very solid last season but before this year's training camp had not seen game action since Jan. 30 because of post-concussion syndrome. As Tocchet said, "He's done some good stuff for us this year. And I thought there were a couple of games we didn't play well in front of him, also."
At the same time, "it's a long season. You go through stretches. It's something every player deals with. Right now, Mike has to work hard for us and cheer Niitty on as he's waiting in the wings. He knows he's going to play. There's nothing more to that."
It's as simple as Niittymaki's game.
"For me, seeing the puck is probably the biggest thing," he said. "There's always traffic (in front of the net), but sometimes you're able to see everything and find the puck, and right now I'm seeing everything.
"You're patient. You wait and wait, and you really don't do anything before the puck kind of comes to you. That's when you feel good about yourself."
As for taking games away from Smith, Niittymaki said not to read too much into it.
"It's a long year," he said. "I don't look at it like two guys fighting for ice time right now. It's a team game. They're going to need both guys. There are ups and downs, and we're both going to have them."
That's why, Smith said, "it's important to have two guys who can carry the ball, and right now that's Niitty, and he's doing a heck of a job at it. He's keeping us in games and getting us the points we need right now."
As Tocchet said, it is a simple equation.
Craig returning? If forward Ryan Craig clears re-entry waivers at noon today, Tocchet said, he might play against Ottawa. Craig, sent to Norfolk out of camp, is tied for the AHL team's lead with seven goals and nine points in 11 games.