BOSTON – Mike Smith went to bed thinking he’d be in his usual backup spot as Tampa Bay’s goalie. Less than 24 hours later, he stood in the Lightning’s net when the puck dropped to start Game 5 of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
That’s a lot of confidence in a player who had never started a post-season game.
The Lightning lost 3-1 to the Boston Bruins on Monday night, moving one loss from elimination, but Smith was solid in place of playoff-tested Dwayne Roloson.
“It’s a decision I don’t regret at all,” coach Guy Boucher said. “I’ve done it in the past and it worked. I’ve had it done against me and it worked.”
Smith stopped 17 of the 19 shots he faced—the Bruins’ final goal was an empty-netter by Rich Peverley with 12.1 seconds left—and he had little chance on both goals that put the Bruins up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
“They were tough plays, but I’m never satisfied with letting in goals,” Smith said, “so I’m going to take a look at them and see what I could have done better.”
The 41-year-old Roloson has played 48 post-season games in his career and started the other 15 this season. But Boucher pulled him from Game 4 with 2:02 left in the first period after he fell behind 3-0 and made just six saves. The 29-year-old Smith stopped the other 21 Boston shots as Tampa Bay came back for a 5-3 win.
Still, Smith thought Boucher would go back to Roloson on Monday night.
“He’s done well the whole playoffs. I was ready to go if called upon,” he said.
The call came during the morning skate.
“I found out right before I went back to the hotel for lunch,” Smith said. “I think the coach hung on to it as long as he could and, obviously, I was surprised.”
Imagine his shock, then, when he faced only three shots in the first period. Goalies usually like to get more action early to develop a rhythm.
But Smith got out of the first period with a 1-0 lead.
“Smitty was great for how little rubber he saw,” Lightning forward Ryan Malone said. “It’s probably not what he’s used to, but we did a decent job of keeping the shots outside and he had a couple of big saves there.”
Actually, Smith said, he’s used to not getting a lot of action.
“We’re a team that doesn’t give up many shots through the whole regular season. I learned to play like that,” said Smith, who started 20 of the 22 games he played before the playoffs. “You’ve just got to try to relax with your mind when the puck’s in their end and when it comes down just to try and stay focused.”
In the other end, goalie Tim Thomas had a busy night. After Simon Gagne gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead just 69 seconds into the game, the Vezina Trophy finalist stopped all 33 shots.
And he was impressed with his counterpart in the opposite net.
“He played a good game,” Thomas said. “He only let in two goals and they were two pretty good goals.”
Smith thinks Boucher waited to tell him he’d start to avoid putting more pressure on him. Still, he had some jitters in his playoff starting debut.
“Obviously, my first start I was a little bit nervous,” he said, “but it’s the buildup more than anything. Once you get out there and get playing I seemed to settle down and get in the rhythm of the game.”
Now Boucher has another decision to make with his season on the line.
Does he go back to Roloson on Wednesday night in Tampa or stick with Smith?
The coach gave no hint, but said, “I’m one of those guys that will give people a chance. I felt that Smitty had been terrific for us.”
And what does Smith think about his role in Game 6?
“I have no expectations right now,” he said.