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By Gary Shelton, Times Columnist
Published February 28, 2008
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
TAMPA - It does not matter that hope wears a mask. Around here, it always looks the same.
In the same building, on the same ice, in front of the same net, the latest stranger invites you to believe that this time will be different. He bends and he flexes, and he sprawls and he stretches, and he attempts to make you believe that he will be different than all of the disappointments who came before him.
And like a bride walking the aisle for the sixth time, a franchise longingly looks for clues that somehow, some way, this trip will work out.
Say hello to Mike Smith, the new guy.
Perhaps he will be prove to be more than just the next guy.
By now, most of us are worn down by the familiarity of the sight. Another new goaltender? Another fresh start? Over the past three seasons, has the Lightning done anything more consistently, and with less satisfaction, than changing its goalie? Around here, faith gave way to a demand for proof long ago.
Still, as you take your first glance at the latest flame, it is possible to think ... maybe.
True enough, Smith lost Wednesday night's game to Minnesota. True enough, he gave up three goals (although one was kicked in by a teammate and, on another, he had no defensive help).
For much of the night, however, there seemed to be something there. Smith looked big enough to fill the net, quick enough to stop the puck and skilled enough to handle his stick. And, yes, he looked tougher than the rest.
That was what you wanted to see, wasn't it? That he was a better bet than the lead-footed, brick-fisted goalies who preceded him.
Oh, we have been through this new goaltender thing enough by now that we know that first impressions can only tell us so much. Smith could have shut out the Wild, or he could have given up six, and long term, it wouldn't have decided anything.
If Wednesday was a clue, however, yeah, Smith is going to be more consistent than John Grahame, the party guy. He is going to be more athletic than Marc Denis. He is going to be mentally tougher than Johan Holmqvist. He is going to be younger than Sean Burke and older than Karri Ramo.
Whether he will be good enough to make you forget about Nikolai Khabibulin, well, we'll see.
When it comes to the Trial of Mike Smith, that's the thing to remember. The verdict isn't going to be in for a while. You don't know, I don't know, and for crying out loud, John Tortorella doesn't know whether Smith is the answer or the latest in a series of questions. After all, Smith was brought in by the same guys who had hopes for Grahame and Denis.
At first glance, yeah, you would say the kid has a chance.
There was a moment, halfway through the second period, when you caught a glimpse of Smith's possibilities. The puck bounded free and suddenly, Smith found himself playing a game of one-on-one. The Wild's Marian Gaborik was flying down the ice, the puck on his stick, and for a moment, it looked like an old West gunfight.
In that moment, at least, Smith measured up. He suddenly looked bigger and the net behind him looked smaller, and he smothered Gaborik's shot easily. As such moments go, it was a keeper.
If you believe the scouting reports, Smith can handle moments such as this regularly. He is big enough, quick enough, and as Lightning goaltender coach Jeff Reese says, he can handle the puck "as well as any goaltender in the league."
Does that mean Smith is ready to graduate from a backup to a No. 1 goalie? Not necessarily. The world is filled with talented backups who find they cannot handle the designation as a No. 1.
Mentally, being a No. 1 is a different load. Teammates look at him differently. Coaches treat him differently. The expectations change.
Being a No. 1 is playing eight games out of 10 over the roughest stretch of the schedule. Being a No. 1 is making a one-goal lead look huge and a two-goal lead look impossible. Being a No. 1 is stopping the soft goals and making the hard saves when the game is in doubt. Being a No. 1 is knowing how much of a load your teammates expect you to lift.
Can Smith handle all of that? We'll see. He comes across as a likeable kid with a healthy dose of the cockiness that the good ones have.
It goes without saying that the Lightning needs for Smith to be the real deal. There is so much for him to protect, as if glass bulbs were tucked into the netting behind him.
There is Jay Feaster's last chance and Tortorella's reputation, Oren Koules' credibility and a team's hope for the future, Brad Richards' memory and the public's mounting frustrations. Also, there are the skulls of failed goaltenders.
Is there something different about Smith?
Or we won't.
[Last modified February 27, 2008, 23:50:23]