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InGoal Update: Mike Smith plays Redemption Song in Tampa Bay

InGoal Update: Mike Smith plays Redemption Song in Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Lightning Goaltender Mike Smith

Tampa Bay Lightning backup Mike Smith locks in on the puck while making a save against the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals (Photo by Scott Slingsby)


Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith loves to play the guitar almost as much as he loves to play the puck.

Once, after a private performance for his old Dallas Stars team, he even talked Garth Brooks into giving him one of his, even though Smith, who knows that plucking the strings can give him a better glove hand, prefers his Kingston, Ontario hometown band, the Tragically Hip. But the Lightning backstop with the laid-back, surfer boy air about him, was in more of a Bob Marley mood during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday, and his tune of preference was Redemption Song.

After a season in which he was waived twice, missed a month with a knee injury, spent another two-plus months in the American Hockey League, and faced an uncertain future as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Smith came on in relief of Dwayne Roloson for the second time in three games and was again perfect. In his first taste of playoff hockey, the 6-foot-4 goalie has stopped all 29 Boston shots, including 21 Sunday as the Lightning rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win 5-3 and even the series at two wins apiece.

“Mentally stronger – that’s pretty well it,” Smith told NHL.com of a roller coaster season in which he admits now included times he, “never thought I’d play for the Lightning again … I’ve been a guy that had all the ability, but mentally as a goaltender you have to be sharp. That’s probably been my downfall in the past and I’m learning how to deal with that now. So far it is working out.”

Smith showed off that improved mental game on the next question, which asked if he started thinking ‘I can’t let in this next goal’ after the Lightning rallied quickly to tie the game at 3-3 in the second period.

“No, you can’t think like that or it is going to happen,” Smith said. “You have to be positive and think you’re the biggest goalie in the League and tell them no one is going to score on you and focus on the next shot.”

Roloson, whose role in getting Tampa Bay to the Eastern Conference finals can’t be overstated, will be back between the pipes for Game 5 back in Boston, according to head coach Guy Boucher. But even if Smith doesn’t play again these playoffs, he’s shown his next contract, while maybe not for as much as the $2.4 million he’s earning now, should be a one-way deal in the National League.

Not that it’s been an easy journey back to that point. Smith told the St. Petersburg Times there were times he wasn’t sure he’d ever make it back to the NHL:

“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,” Smith, whose career has also twice been derailed temporarily by serious concussions, told The Times. “Clearing waivers, I thought I might never play again (in the NHL). 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.”

Given the style changes he’s made under first-year Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean this season, Smith may just be getting started. Far too aggressive for a goaltender of his size, Jean has reigned Smith back into the blue ice, where he can let his size make saves easy for him rather than relying on his incredible athleticism as much as he used to.

Tampa Bay Lightning Goaltender Mike Smith

Tampa Bay backup Mike Smith, seen here against Boston in Game 2, struggled with being asked to handle the puck less early in the season. (Scott Slingsby photo)


If that sounds a lot like another big NHL goalie still playing on the West Coast, it’s no coincidence. Jean shares puck-stopping philosophies – and the Protek Goaltending Schools on the East Coast of Canada – with first-year Vancouver goalie guru Roland Melanson, and the changes he’s asked Smith to make are similar to the ones Roberto Luongo has undergone. In addition to a more conservative initial depth, which shortens up and quickens pre- and post-save movements, allowing both to get their big frame in position and squared up easier and sooner, both goalies have altered their post play, using more paddle down on the blocker side, and wrapping their elbow outside the posts when using the VH, or one-pad down, technique on dead-angle plays.

Like Luongo, Smith struggled with the adjustments early. Unlike Luongo he didn’t have a new 12-year, $64-million contract that ensured he’s get time to work through them completely. Smith, meanwhile, was also struggling to adjust to a new team system under first year head coach Guy Boucher, and some of his frustrations – and the mental deficiencies he mentioned needing to work through – showed up during an Ask a Pro session with InGoal Magazine just two months into the season. Smith said the lack of “feeler shots” behind the new-look Lightning would always result in lower save percentages (something he and Dan Ellis were being widely critiqued for at the time), and added being told to handle the puck less, a strength of both goalies, also took away a tool to feel into the low-shot contests.

Despite all that, after InGoal watched him work through a gruelling 30-minute post-practice session with Jean in Vancouver back in early December, there were already signs the puck-stopping style changes were close to paying off, and sure enough Smith’s season started to turn a corner later that month. But then he hurt his knee in practice, and Tampa acquired Roloson from the Islanders, and Smith was exiled to the AHL until Ellis was traded to Anaheim at the deadline.

Instead of pouting, though, Smith kept working. Eventually, the changes became instinctual, rather than something he was thinking about on the ice, something he talked about with the Virginian-Pilot just before being called back up:

“I thought about the technical side of the game way too much instead of just going out there and playing. It’s too fast a game, and things happen too quickly to always feel like you have to do right thing, be in the right position. If you’re not in the right position and need to make an athletic save, well, you just have to react. When it comes down to it, you’ve gotta stop the puck.”

That’s not to say he stopped making the changes – they were readily evident in Game 4 Sunday. (In fact, if you recall what Canucks backup Cory Schneider said about making similar changes to his game under Melanson this season, they probably made it a lot easier to play so sporadically because they leave a goalie less reliant on the read-and-react rhythm required to play more aggressively and with more outside-in flow). Smith just stopped thinking about the changes once he got on the ice. And not thinking also made it easier for Smith to come on in relief of Roloson as well.

“I didn’t have time to think,” Smith told NHL.com. “You can never be surprised. You have to be ready at all times.”

Tampa Bay Lightning Goaltender Mike Smith

Tampa Bay's Mike Smith has learned to lock in on the next shot, not the past. (Photo by Scott Slingsby)

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.