TAMPA — Lightning G Mike Smith is a patient guy.
Good thing, too. Just when Smith was playing, perhaps, his best hockey of the season, he strained his neck in mid January, was placed on injured reserve and has had to watch Antero Niittymaki perform brilliantly.
Mr. Smith, meet Wally Pipp.
"Niitty's played really well," Smith said. "And because of that, he's earning starts and we're getting wins. And that's the most important thing right now."
The Lightning has won three straight, including 2-1 in overtime against Calgary on Saturday, to improve to 7-4-1 since Niittymaki took over the starting job. Smith, out for the first six games of that stretch, has played just once in the past six, a 3-2 loss at Washington on Jan. 31.
"He's had a couple bad breaks," coach Rick Tocchet said of Smith. "Last year, he had the same thing going. He was kind of our first-half MVP and got hurt. Same thing here. He started out slow, but there was about an eight-game stretch where he carried the ball for us … and he gets hurt again. We're lucky we have Niitty, who's held the ball for us."
And the starting spot.
In hockey, you ride a hot goalie as long as you can.
"It's frustrating not contributing to the team's success. You want to be a part of it," Smith said. "I just have to stay positive and work hard at practice and when I get a chance, perform like I did before I got the injury.
"Being a professional, you can't take practice for granted. You can only get better by going out there and working hard and working on your game. And (practice) is that much more important when you're not playing (after an injury). You have to be ready, and you have to stay sharp at practice to stay confident. I feel pretty good. Obviously, it's a work in progress, but I'm back feeling like I can compete at a high level again."
The main thing for the Lightning is Smith and Niittymaki are on the same page.
"It is really good," Niittymaki said of their relationship. "We both want to win, and we both want to play. But we understand whoever's not playing is supporting the other one."
"I don't think Smitty's knocking on my door mad that he's not playing," Tocchet added. "I want a player upset and wanting to play, and he's that way. But Niittymaki's playing excellent hockey. It's a team game, and Smitty's all-in with us."
Tough break: Lightning D David Hale had just been sent to AHL Norfolk for conditioning, but that plan changed Wednesday when he injured his right leg/ankle.
"It's very frustrating," he said at Saturday morning's skate donning a boot and crutches. "I was hoping to go there and get in shape, and they were giving me a lot of ice time. And I needed it."
Although he didn't have a timetable for a return, Hale's hopeful he can be back in time to help the Lightning make its final push for the playoffs.
"Right now, it seems like a long time," he said.
"But time's probably going to fly by, and I'll be worried about getting in game shape and game ready."
Big day: C Steven Stamkos turned 20 on Sunday. With 55 goals (32 this season), he was one of six players in the past two decades with at least 50 while a teenager. The others? Sidney Crosby (75), Ilya Kovalchuk (67), Rick Nash (58), Trevor Linden (51) and Jaromir Jagr (50).