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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Underrated Thomas, Smith keep rolling

Two of the surprisingly strongest and most underrated goaltenders in this young season continued their hot starts Tuesday night with stellar performances.

Tim Thomas earned his second consecutive shutout by making 31 saves in Boston's 1-0 victory at Vancouver. It marked the first time in 72 years that Boston has won back-to-back games by a 1-0 score. The Bruins won three straight 1-0 games in March 1936. Meanwhile, Mike Smith stopped 37 of 39 shots to lead the Lightning to a 3-2 road victory over the Maple Leafs.

Of course it's not as if Thomas and Smith were facing the 1985 Oilers, but the popgun offenses of the Canucks and Leafs haven't been the only ones frustrated by these netminders this season.

Thomas leads the league with a .943 save percentage, but Smith is a close second at .942. Both goalies also rank in the top 10 in goals-against average (Thomas' 1.77 is second and Smith's 2.11 is seventh). And if they had received a little more goal support, the duo would be faring better in victories (Thomas has three; Smith has two) as well. The Lightning have scored 1.67 goals per game in Smith's starts, while the Bruins have notched 2.17 per game in front of Thomas.

I wasn't alone in having low expectations of Thomas and Smith heading into the season. Both were expected to share a lot of games with their sidekicks (Thomas with Manny Fernandez and Smith with Olaf Kolzig). Even now, Thomas is owned in 41.6 percent of leagues while Smith is owned in just 21.9 percent.

Thomas, 34, is a late bloomer who has had to fight to earn the confidence of Bruins brass and fight off challenges for the No. 1 job. He might not be in Boston's long-term plans, but he's Mr. Right Now as far as fantasy owners are concerned because the Bruins will most likely keep going to him more than Fernandez this season.

Even if he splits time more evenly with Fernandez, Thomas should still be scooped up because the improving Bruins will be in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race all season. Besides having a balanced offense, the Bruins are playing smart and disciplined. Just as in their 1-0 overtime victory in Edmonton on Monday, the B's took just three penalties against Vancouver.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith made 37 saves on his way to a road win against the Maple Leafs.

The same contender status can't be said for the Lightning yet, but Smith can't be blamed for their problems. Oddly enough, Tampa Bay's defense (eighth overall at 2.38 goals-against per game), which was expected to be its biggest weakness heading into the season, has outperformed its talented and well-paid offense (a league-low 14 goals in eight games through Tuesday).

Vincent Lecavalier against the Leafs might be the spark the Lightning need to build some confidence. But if Tampa's shooters start finding the net, will the skaters give Smith the help he deserves? Even now, the Lightning are allowing the most shots per game (37.5) in the league.

The 26-year-old Smith has never played more than 23 games in an NHL season and still has to prove he can be a No. 1 goalie in the league. Now looks like a good time to grab him, but beware of a midseason swoon if he can't adjust to the heavier workload.

Ice chips:

The Sharks held the Penguins to just 11 shots on goal in their 2-1 victory. Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby had no shots but did pick up an assist on Ruslan Fedotenko's goal. The Sharks matched forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau up against Crosby and linemate Evgeni Malkin, who managed two shots. … We never know which Antero Niittymaki (24 saves and the shutout in Philly's 7-0 victory over Atlanta) will show up, but play him whenever the Thrashers are on the schedule. Niittymaki improved to 10-0-0 versus the Thrashers in his career. … Simon Gagne's first multipoint game (two goals, two assists) since Jan. 20 is the latest proof he's back in form following last season's concussion problems. What's even more impressive is that he has produced without injured center Daniel Briere lately. The line of Gagne, Mike Knuble and Glen Metropolit combined for nine points against Atlanta. … Flyers forward Joffrey Lupul has five goals and an assist and is plus-4 in his past four games. … He hasn't been a fantasy factor so far this season (zero points), but Thrashers rookie defenseman Zach Bogosian, the No. 3 pick in this year's draft, didn't return after Philadelphia's Darroll Powe slammed him into the boards midway through the second period. … Canadiens forward Andrei Kostitsyn returned to the lineup after missing two games because of a concussion. He was plus-1 with two penalty minutes in 16 minutes, 19 seconds of action. … First-overall draft pick Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay finally got his first NHL point with an assist on Lecavalier's second goal that stood up as the winner against Toronto. … Capitals forward Alexander Semin has two goals and four assists in his past three games … Predators forward Jason Arnott's two goals in Nashville's 4-3 shootout loss to the Capitals gives him 33 points in his past 31 games (15 goals, 18 assists). … After his first shutout of the season in Calgary's 3-0 victory over Colorado, Miikka Kiprusoff has allowed just five goals and has a .957 save percentage in four consecutive victories. … Canucks defenseman Sami Salo returned to action after missing the past three games because of a groin injury. … Edmonton forward Ales Hemsky has gone 17 consecutive games without a goal, stretching to last season. … The Blue Jackets sent first-round pick Nikita Filatov down to the AHL on Tuesday.