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Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Smith has thankless job in Tampa

No matter how talented or skilled you are or how hard you work, being the No. 1 netminder on a troubled hockey team is a rough gig. Sure, it's nice to be the team's poster boy, and the pay is pretty decent, but dealing with inadequate support out front day in and day out takes its toll.

Were he the whining type, no one could testify to this more than Lightning goalie Mike Smith. Tampa Bay's go-to young man is a good goaltender who has a long, successful career ahead of him, but he's worn out. Anyone would be while backstopping a pitiful defense and the worst offense in the league. Using backup Olaf Kolzig only here and there, Tampa Bay relies heavily on Smith, and it's clearly tiring him out. Incredulously, he has won just once in his past 11 starts, yet maintains a .922 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against average for the season. Those numbers show the shortcomings on offense and defense like no others can.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith can only hope the Lightning improve.
Unfortunately, Smith's immediate fantasy future appears as dim as his recent past. The Lightning hit the road to face Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa in the next five days. If the luxury is there, give Smith a rest on your roster until next week. Newly anointed head coach Rick Tocchet needs a proper chance to reorganize and rally his team but hasn't had that yet. Once Saturday's game with the Senators is over, Tampa will have four days off to practice and regroup before facing the Avalanche back home. Although there's no question this team is broken, that doesn't mean it can't be fixed. There's far too much talent to foresee otherwise. And when some repairs are made, Smith will have the opportunity to shine.

In some ways, Joey MacDonald's story in Long Island is similar. MacDonald hasn't sat out a game since Nov. 1 and, frankly, looks pooped. After a good start to that month, his numbers have shown he's weary. In his past nine games, Rick DiPietro's semipermanent replacement has sported a 3-6 record with a 3.79 goals-against average. Yet, in contrast to Smith's situation in Tampa, the light at the end of MacDonald's tunnel only flickers. Unlike the Lightning, the Isles aren't underachieving; they're just not very good. The more MacDonald is thrown out there, the worse he'll get. Although I fully respect the effort and poise the 28-year-old has displayed all season, he's simply not an asset to any fantasy roster. Not now, and not later.

Ice chips

Attention all Radim Vrbata owners: Your man has left the Lightning to finish the season in his native Czech Republic. The parting is amicable, and Vrbata could return to the NHL next year, but that doesn't help you much now. … To update one of the most annoyingly enduring and annoying, story lines of this season, Mats Sundin (make a decision already!) apparently will pick a team to play with in the next few days. Most of the talking puckheads think it'll be the New York Rangers. Sundin's agent hints he has full intentions of hitting the ice on Dec. 28. … Chicago's Kris Versteeg will miss Wednesday's matchup with Ottawa. The rookie scoring leader was suspended a game for instigating a fight Sunday. … Allowing five goals on 25 shots, Pekka Rinne's recent magical run came to a thudding halt with a 6-3 loss to the Blues on Monday. If his knee holds up, Dan Ellis will be in net for Nashville on Tuesday night. … St. Louis' Cam Janssen earned his second fighting major in as many games by going toe-to-toe with Nashville's Wade Belak, who recently was traded from Florida. If you need a boost in penalty minutes, Janssen has 33 PIMs in his past 10 games. … Ruslan Fedotenko found the back of the net twice in Pittsburgh's 4-3 loss to Buffalo, but to give credit where it's due, Evgeni Malkin set both up so beautifully that not to score would have been tragic. … Craig Anderson's head is seemingly in OK shape after he hit the crossbar on Saturday. Florida's perceived No. 1 goalie stopped 35 of 38 shots in the Panthers' overtime victory in Ottawa. … Although Jay Bouwmeester went pointless Saturday, his hot streak appears to be back on track. Bouwmeester potted a goal to extend his scoring run to 13 points in 12 games. … I'm fully disclosing the extreme prematurity of the following statement, but Jason Blake looks really comfy playing alongside Maple Leafs call-up Jeremy Williams. Sure, it has been just one game, and it was against the Islanders, but Williams helped set up Blake's goal in the second period, then Blake assisted on Williams' tally in the third. The evident instant chemistry among them and linemate Dominic Moore, was quite lovely. Hey, you never know.