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With Mike Smith injured, Tampa Bay Lightning could start Mike McKenna in goal

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — As far as Mike McKenna is concerned, "The game is the game, whether you're playing summer hockey or playing in the NHL."

Quite a statement from someone with zero experience in the big show and who, before Monday, did not even have an NHL contract.

But just like that, McKenna is part of the Lightning's goaltending mix and could make his NHL debut tonight against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. Just as well, then, his perspective is so straightforward.

"The basic principles are the same no matter what league you're in," he said. "You have to stay to your basic technique and just have as much confidence as you can and not worry about all the other distractions going on."

And there are distractions.

Goalie Mike Smith did not fly with the team to Long Island so he could have treatment in Tampa for an undisclosed upper-body injury, general manager Brian Lawton said.

And while Lawton said Smith could join the team today, he "probably" will not play, leaving the duties to McKenna, 25, signed off the roster of AHL Norfolk, and Karri Ramo, 22, who was recalled from the Admirals.

Riku Helenius, 20, who made his NHL debut when Smith was pulled in the third period of Friday's loss to the Flyers, was sent to Norfolk, where he is expected to start the next several games.

"Just another weekend for the Lightning," Lawton deadpanned.

A weekend that took on more urgency with Smith's injury.

No word on how it happened, but Smith went a little haywire after he was pulled for the first time this season, beating up a water bottle, smashing his stick and turning over a cart.

It was unclear if Smith hurt himself during the tantrum, but the Kingston, Ontario, native, who has played 41 of 50 games, did not practice Saturday or Monday.

Lawton had been looking for a backup to replace Helenius, whom he wanted in Norfolk while Ramo served a six-game AHL suspension for leaving the bench to join an altercation.

But when Lawton could not pick up a player on re-entry waivers — it is believed he had interest in Vancouver's Curtis Sanford and Edmonton's Dany Sabourin — he signed McKenna, 6 feet 2, 195 pounds, who was 11-10-1 in 24 games for Norfolk with a 2.97 goals against average, one shutout and a .904 save percentage.

He also brought up Ramo, who starts his fifth tour with the Lightning. And while it is unclear who will start against New York, McKenna has the better stats and the more intriguing story.

A 2002 sixth-round draft choice of the Predators, the St. Louis native spent four seasons with St. Lawrence University. He has kicked around the minors since and last summer signed with Norfolk as a free agent.

"His competitiveness," Lightning goaltenders coach Cap Raeder said when asked what he likes about McKenna. "I like that he's tall and rangy and blocks pucks. Skating, I had a little concern at the beginning of the year about the way he moved around, but he's much better than he was, and I think he has a real good understanding of the position."

Even so, McKenna said, "I thought this was impossible three days ago when I didn't have an NHL contract. … Ultimately, you have to look at the larger picture. I guess somebody has believed in me enough to put me at this level."

McKenna will be the 42nd player to suit up for the Lightning this season, a league high. He said he might as well do it as a starter, and with games tonight and Wednesday at Pittsburgh, it could happen.

"I'd love to play right away," McKenna said. "You make it to this level, you don't want to sit on the bench. You want to play and make a difference."

"I have no problems throwing him in there," coach Rick Tocchet said. "Maybe this is his chance."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

With Mike Smith injured, Tampa Bay Lightning could start Mike McKenna in goal 02/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 8:06am]
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