TAMPA — The Lightning said in a release that Mike Smith is expected back on the ice "within the next week."
But the No. 1 goaltender, who already has missed 10 days of practice and three games, said there is no timetable for his return from an injury lingering longer than anticipated.
"No," Smith said Monday in his first interview since being sidelined. "(Trainer Tommy Mulligan) is saying it's just how you feel, and when you're ready to go, you're ready to go."
Smith has post-concussion syndrome, something the team previously declined to reveal, but relented, spokesman Bill Wickett said, to stop speculation when it became obvious Smith would not recover as quickly as hoped.
It was a much more sobering report than previous from general manager Brian Lawton, who twice predicted Smith's return to the lineup, including tonight against the Thrashers at the St. Pete Times Forum, only to see the goalie unable to practice.
"We were hopeful Mike Smith's symptoms would clear sooner, and they haven't," Lawton said in the release, "so we're taking a conservative approach with him, making sure he is 100 percent before he returns to the ice."
"I'd be the first one to be back in there if I was healthy," Smith said. "I hate to miss one game, let alone three or four. It's been over a week now and it hasn't gotten a whole lot better. It's been really frustrating."
The team said it is impossible to tell exactly when or how Smith was hurt. But Smith, 26, acknowledged experiencing symptoms for about six weeks.
After being pulled in the third period of a 6-1 loss to the Flyers on Jan. 30, Smith said he decided the injury was hampering his game and needed rest.
"I'd been playing with it for quite a while," he said. "It got to the point, am I helping the team by playing through it or am I making it worse? The last couple of games I felt were two of my worst games of the year. That's when I decided to make the call."
Smith struggled before that as well, going 3-3 in six games with a 3.59 goals-against average and an .880 save percentage.
The timing is difficult for the Lightning, which would prefer having its top goalie during a six-game home stand it probably must sweep to have even a remote chance at the playoffs.
That responsibility now falls to rookies Mike McKenna, who starts tonight, and Karri Ramo.
"Mike's been holding the fort," Smith said. "Hopefully, he can keep it going."
Still, Smith said, "It's been hard to watch, especially at this time of the season. It's crunch time. It's do or die. I want to be the guy to help the team out."
As for his recent disappearing act with reporters, he said, "I'm not one to run away from the media, but this has been difficult for me.
"The main thing is to get healthy, and when I come back to help the team win."
NOTES: Coach Rick Tocchet said defenseman Paul Ranger (upper body) is "iffy" for tonight's game. The team is trying to get defenseman Josef Melichar through re-entry waivers from AHL Norfolk. … Left wing Wade Brookbank also is on waivers to be sent to Norfolk.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.