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When needed, unlikely hero Mike Smith comes through for Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning goalie Mike Smith, who replaced Dwayne Roloson late in the first period, makes 21 saves and allows no goals.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Lightning goalie Mike Smith, who replaced Dwayne Roloson late in the first period, makes 21 saves and allows no goals.

TAMPA

The impossible comeback was over now, and for a moment — a brief, delicious moment — the improbable hero stood by himself in the unlikeliest of celebration.

Mike Smith's arms were raised in triumph, and still, he could not reach the soaring emotions of the moment. This was his day, his night, his victory.

The cheers washed over him — from a crowd he once wondered if he would ever hear again, in a league he once wondered if he would ever play in again, at a level he had never experienced before.

Turns out, this is what wonderful looks like.

And then his teammates were all over him. Steven Stamkos, and Marty St. Louis, and Vinny Lecavalier, and then everyone else. Yes, teammates always swarm a goaltender in victory, but this was something better. The rest of the Lightning players knew what Smith had given them and what he had endured to get there.

This was renewed hope. For a player who might as well have been thrown away, and for a franchise that appeared on the verge of being blown away.

Forever, this will be known as Smitty's Game. It was the game that Smith rescued a team that was headed in the wrong decision. This is the game he came off the bench, and he lifted his team, and he helped even the NHL Eastern Conference final at two games apiece. It was the game where Smith reinvented the perception of him.

Not bad for a player the Lightning was willing to give away a few months ago, was it?

Has there ever been a less-likely hero in a Tampa Bay game? Remember, this was the goaltender the Lightning put on waivers in December. This was the player the team sent to the minors. This was the player who was certain he would never again play for the Lightning. This was the player who wondered if he would ever play in the NHL again.

And there he was, savoring the moment. And feeling …

"Relief," Smith said.

Not validation. Not vindication. Not mistreated or misjudged or underappreciated. There in the moment he will remember until he is an old man, Smith felt … relieved.

"I hadn't played in too many playoffs, and it was loud and the adrenaline was going pretty good," he said. "I felt relief. And excitement. And I was pumped for our guys.

"Yeah, it's been a hard run, but I can't look at it like that. I'm just focused on trying to get better every day and trying to get mentally stronger. It's starting to pay off."

Yeah, you could say that. Smith faced 21 shots Saturday, and he stopped them all. He settled down his teammates, and he gave them ballast as they began their comeback.

Who saw this coming? For a while, it was as if Tampa Bay was willing to leave Smith by the side of the road. He was inconsistent, he was injury-prone, he was a reminder of a bad trade by a bad ownership group. When he was shipped to Norfolk — and if Dan Ellis hadn't been traded, who knows when he might have made his way back — it is fair to say there were not widespread protests.

"Clearing waivers, I thought I might never play again (in the NHL)," Smith said. "It only lasted for a few hours. After I thought about the situation, I decided to work really hard, to take the high road. The easy way would have been to give up and quit. The hard way is to bear down and work hard.

"You can't dwell on the past. Honestly, it's very rewarding, but I'm not going to stop here."

There is something warming about persistence, isn't there? There is something to say about endurance. Turns out, there is something to say about smothering the Bruins, too.

"I love these stories," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "Success doesn't build people. Failure builds people. You manage it, and then you know who you are. We know who he is. He's had a terrific attitude. He deserves this."

Ah, but what else does he deserve?

A start in Game 5, perhaps?

As of today, that is the discussion. As amazing as Dwayne Roloson has been throughout the season — and the first two rounds of the playoffs — he hasn't been quite as imposing against the Bruins. Twice, he has been pulled. In each of the other two games, he gave up goals so soft you could make s'mores from them.

So would you go with the goaltender who brought the team this far or the one who gave you life Saturday?

"We have our No. 1 goaltender," Boucher said. "He's taken us to this place. (This game) doesn't change the status."

Should it? You could certainly build an argument for Smith. He has been in two games now and has stopped all 29 shots. In fact, if you look at Smith's past nine games, he has a 6-1-1 record with a 1.5 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage.

That said, Boucher isn't much for reactionary moves. He thought the first-period problems Saturday were more about turnovers than goaltending. Besides, Roloson has been his best chance for victory for too many nights to change now.

The thought here is he'll stick with Roloson for Game 5, but he might go to Smith more quickly. And if Game 5 doesn't go well for Roloson, don't be surprised to see Smith in Game 6.

"It's a coach's decision," Roloson said. "It's not about individuals in our locker room. It's about winning."

Smith, by the way, said he doesn't expect to start. He expects Roloson to start and to play well.

And if not, Smith is ready.

Frankly, that sounds a lot better than it has in a long, long time.

When needed, unlikely hero Mike Smith comes through for Tampa Bay Lightning 05/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 6:25pm]
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