The heat in the crease; Avalanche at Lightning preview

WHERE: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 620 WDAE (radio)

Eyes will be on the crease tonight. I think that is all that needs to be said. It's what needs to be emphasized and will be when the team takes to the ice. It does have something to do with defense, but it has more to do with the effort by Mike Smith and Dan Ellis.

Since the start of the 3rd period of Tampa Bay's 5-3 win over the New York Rangers before Thanksgiving, the Lightning have given up 25 goals over 13 periods (not including 2 overtime periods). That's an average of almost 2 per period.

What changed, though? I mean, really, what happened? Has the team grown complacent? Have the goalies grown so, knowing that the offense has the ability to bail them out?

There was an article early last week on about the friendship shared by Mike Smith and Dan Ellis, how it's not a competition but friendship and team-first:

"A lot of people talk about a competition between goaltenders," Ellis said in a phone interview from Tampa Bay before travelling to Philadelphia. "We're not competing against each other, we're competing against other teams.

"When you have a team focus as your number one [priority] you don't worry about being No. 1 goalie or backup or this and that."

Dani Toth, writing at her usual perch at Lightning Hockey Blog, pointed out the inherit problem here:

... Could it be that because there is no heated competition for top spot that it is causing the goaltenders to not be consistent? Like is there less of a motivation to be the #1 goalie when you know that Boucher will alternate between the two of you? Does this mindset of being great friends hurt the goalie tandem?

Guy Boucher has repeatedly stated that he does not like players in comfort zones. And, perhaps, that's the problem here: With no competition, and friends-first, the tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis aren't motivated to push each other.

Of course, that's assuming a lot. I don't know what the two players talk about at practice, nor am I a fly on the wall in the locker room. But at this point there is the most heat -- from outside sources -- on goaltending that I can remember in a while.

That's not saying there weren't rough stretches last season (or in previous years) where goaltending became a hot-button issue. I just don't recall a panicked reaction from the fan base that we're seeing now.

Last season, it was more a reaction to not playing Antero Niittymaki more often than he was playing. Fans had more confidence in Frank, while management and coaching seemed to be in Smith's corner. Rick Tocchet went on the record as late as January 29th (if not later, this was quickly researched) calling Smith the Bolts #1 goalie... All in spite of the fact Antero Niittymaki was starting more games for the Lightning (he ended up starting 46 games all season, appearing in 49. This, compared to Smith's 42 games played with 36 starts).

That wasn't competition either, but an ill placed vote of confidence. That was also done under a different coaching and management staff, however.

The Lightning are still competing this season.  I don't have to throw out the offensive numbers or the standings to emphasize that point...  But these last 13 periods have been brutal to watch and read about. The team in front of the crease can only do so much. The last line of defense is the man in the crease.

The man in the crease needs to raise his game, no matter which goalie it is.

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