TORONTO — There may never be a better description of what a goaltender goes through during a playoff push than what the Lightning's Mike Smith came up with Wednesday.
"There's no more pressure than we're used to," he said. "It's just magnified whether we play good or bad. "If you play well, you're a hero. If you don't play well, the spotlight is on you, saying, 'What's going on?' "
That is the question with which Tampa Bay's goalies have been dealing. Consider that during the team's 1-6-0 skid, Smith and Antero Niittymaki have a combined 4.69 goals-against average and .851 save percentage. During the 7-1-1 surge that came before, they had a 1.29 GAA and .958 save percentage.
What makes the comparison more extraordinary is the Lightning scored an average 2.5 goals per game in the 7-1-1 streak. In then going 1-6-0, it scored an average 3.6. In other words, it is scoring more, winning less and watching its postseason hopes fade as a result.
Goals come in many forms. As wing Mark Parrish put it, "There usually are a lot of mistakes in front of the goalies before the puck gets to them." And Tampa Bay's defense, a work in progress all season, lately has been extremely sloppy in front of the net. That leaves the goalies on an island. "The trouble is, we need A games from our goalies, and sometimes the B isn't enough," goaltenders coach Cap Raeder said. "That's just the way it is."
That still doesn't change the basic equation.
"They have to play better," Raeder said, citing bad goals at bad times as a key element to correct. "I'm just waiting for one of them to take the bull by the horns and run with it."
Niittymaki did just that, going 7-0-1 during the Lightning's nine-game surge with a 1.09 GAA and .965 save percentage. In his past five games, though, Niittymaki was 1-3-0, pulled three times and had a 5.75 GAA and .837 save percentage.
"You just come to the rink and work hard in practice and play well the next time," he said. "It's really that simple. I'm not going to see a voodoo guy or anything. There's not really any magic."
Smith, 0-3-0 in his past five games, gets a chance to create some tonight against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
Talk about a tough spot. Smith missed six games in January with a neck strain and then rode the bench during Niittymaki's hot streak. He has played seven games since Jan. 8 without a back-to-back start. It's one thing finding a rhythm when used so sporadically. It's another when you add your own pressure.
"I need to relax and let the game come to me," he said. "Our job is to stop the puck. We can't control anything else that goes on in front of us. I think I got caught up in that quite often, worrying more about what people are doing than about my job.
"I went in with the attitude, 'I can't let a goal in.' Doing that, you're leaning forward. You're crouching lower than you should. You can't play like that."
And the team can't win.