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TORONTO -- A tying goal by Martin St. Louis with 8.7 seconds left in the third period. A rifle of a wrist shot by Simon Gagne in overtime. Another inspiring victory for the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning.
It's a thrill a minute with this team, a club vastly improved over last season thanks to the hiring of GM Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher.
Did we mention Steven Stamkos? My pal Scott Burnside covered that story from head to toe last week.
And so, I'm here to touch on a worrisome trouble spot in the underbelly of an otherwise-wonderful story by the Lightning so far this season.
|Dan Ellis made 22 saves on Tuesday night as the Lightning rallied to beat the Leafs in OT.|
The shots in Tuesday night's 4-3 overtime win were 39-25 for the Bolts. They've been outshot in only eight of 25 games this season. The Lightning have a penalty-killing unit ranked in the top five in the NHL and overall give up the second-fewest shots per game in the league. Numbers to die for if you're an NHL coaching staff.
And yet, they're ranked 29th in the league in goals against per game.
Boucher gave me a knowing look and sly smile Tuesday when I put those numbers to him. If I were a mind reader, I'm pretty sure his thought bubble would have read: "Why do you think that is, Einstein, we're not getting enough saves."
Instead, the rookie NHL bench boss chose his words carefully without hiding the truth.
"We've had great nights with our goaltenders, but it's the consistency we're after right now," Boucher said. "They know it. They're very aware of the fact that they've had moments where they haven't been as sharp as they can be. We've had moments where they were great. We know we have good goaltenders but we just want them to reach that consistency."
It's not that the Tampa goalie tandem of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith, who have split time pretty evenly, has been terrible. You really can't fault Ellis on any of Toronto's three goals Tuesday night. It's just that ... the Bolts feel they could get a few more saves at key times. They've had some solid moments, as Boucher said. But both have save percentages under. 900.
There's room for improvement.
"Absolutely," Ellis told ESPN.com. "I think you're always looking to improve yourself. We're both working with the goalie coach to fine-tune some things. It doesn't seem like we're letting in a consistent type of goal. A lot of them, when we look at them, there are big breakdowns. But when there is a breakdown, you need your goalie to come up with that big save."
Smith more recently had a nice run, winning four in a row while stopping almost everything in sight. Then he got bombed Friday afternoon in Washington.
"I was going pretty good before the Washington game," Smith said. "I'm still riding high with confidence. One loss doesn't mean you can beat yourself up about it. It happens, and you have to move on.
"You look at the last five games I've played, I'm 4-1," he added. "If I do that the rest of the season, I think we'll be in pretty good shape by the end of the year. You can't beat your head in the wall because you lost one game."
As much as the Lightning are riding the heart-stopping play of Stamkos and St. Louis, the fact is, the play of Smith and Ellis over the final 57 games of the regular season will likely be the deciding factor as to whether the team hangs on to a playoff spot.
"They can do it," Boucher said of his goalies' abilities.
There's a lot at stake. There's the first-year GM to win over. Ellis is signed through next season, while Smith is an unrestricted free agent July 1. Yzerman isn't hamstrung by these two contracts.
"You want to prove yourself," said Ellis, signed for $1.5 million a season. "You want to gain their confidence and respect and show that you can go out there consistently and put good games to together. It's happened in small spurts but not long enough spurts. That's the goal right now is to get on a consistent track and provide the team with good goaltending, which gives the team a chance to win every night. And when the team isn't there, you want to be able to steal a game or two."
Smith is earning $2.2 million in the last year of his deal.
"It's a huge year for me, for a lot of guys," Smith said. "It's a new owner, a new general manager, and a new coaching staff. So you have to win these guys over. You have to come to the rink every day, be professional, work hard, try to get better. At the end of the day, that's all you can do is get into games, play as well as you can and the decision will be up to them at the end of the season."
And by the way, Ellis stoned Leafs center Tyler Bozak late in the third period with Tampa still down 3-2. Turns out that was a pretty important save. Something to build on, perhaps.