Mike Smith grabbed a roll of black tape from the bench as he stomped onto the St. Pete Times Forum ice for a morning skate last week. He let the loud squawk draw the attention of his teammates as he wrapped bands of it around his blocker glove and stick.
There was laughter. There were nods. Visible behind the cage of his mask, Smith wasn't so much smiling as projecting the wild-eyed glare his teammates have learned to associate with his intensity.
But Smith, 26, wasn't playing for chuckles as he taped his stick to his glove the morning after a controversial thrown-stick ruling gave the Avalanche a goal and the Lightning a shootout loss.
Acquired in the spring in the deal that sent popular Brad Richards to Dallas, Smith has not only solidified a position that vexed the Lightning last season, but he has asserted himself as a leader on a team in need of them.
For the first 33 games of a dreadful season, Smith has been arguably the best player, and certainly the most consistent, as he has established himself as an NHL starter.
But Smith, a 2001 fifth-round draft pick of Dallas from Kingston, Ontario, says he's not satisfied.
"Yeah, the numbers are good," said Smith, who made 15 saves Tuesday in shutting out the potent Penguins. "I've played pretty well, but the main thing is I've got (six) wins and our team is not doing very well."
Smith enters play against Florida tonight seventh in the NHL with a .925 save percentage (his 840 shots faced is fifth-highest) and 12th with a 2.40 goals-against average.
Freed from a perpetual backup role behind veteran Marty Turco in Dallas, Smith won the starting job in camp this season over veteran free agent Olie Kolzig and holdover Karri Ramo. His 26 games this season are approaching his 34 last season with the Stars and Lightning.
"Obviously, Smitty is ready to be a No. 1," captain Vincent Lecavalier said.
As a player and a leader.
"I want to be a leader. I think I'm a vocal guy," Smith said. "We don't have a ton of guys in here that speak up and talk, and I think it's important to have those guys in the room that aren't afraid to say something."
Smith spoke up and took the blame for a 4-3 loss in Colorado on Nov. 29, though he entered the game with a three-goal deficit in relief of Kolzig. He allowed the fourth goal trying to make an aggressive pass up-ice.
"I love his competitiveness" for taking the blame, interim coach Rick Tocchet said, but a young player, especially a goaltender, has to be careful he "doesn't get too high and too low."
"You try to do everything, and that's when you start to struggle," Tocchet said. "So far he's just done a good job of keeping his head."
Might be all the tape.