When it was announced that Evgeni Nabokov was leaving the Kontinental Hockey League and returning to North America to join an NHL club, Tampa Bay Lightning Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman was asked if he had any interest in signing the Russian goaltender.
After all, Tampa’s tandem of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith had the league’s worst goals-against average (3.47) and save percentage (.874). Despite the team’s winning record and being in the race for the Southeast Division crown, it appeared as if something needed to be done to solidify the club’s crease area.
It was a no-brainer that the Tampa Bay brass had to at least be considering the idea.
But Craig Custance of The Sporting News reported on December 14th that Yzerman downplayed any interest in Nabokov: “I have two goalies here working hard every day trying to improve. We have to improve. There’s lots of different ways to improve and that includes sticking with our own people.”
Ellis had started the team’s last four games after an 8-1 pummelling at the hands of the Boston Bruins on December 2nd. Perhaps not so coincidentally, that was also the last game that Smith had gotten the call from head coach Guy Boucher. Smith was pulled in favor of Ellis after yielding a goal (his fifth allowed at that point) to Boston’s David Krejci just 34 seconds into the third period and had not seen game action until last Wednesday.
But something happened that night at St. Pete Times Forum against the Atlanta Thrashers. The Lightning didn’t have to score a handful of goals to beat Atlanta. As a matter of fact, Smith would not only stop 27 of 28 shots in regulation and overtime, he held Thrashers shooters scoreless in four rounds of the shootout.
That was the kind of effort that had been too rare in Tampa this season. It was a good sign that Smith stole a game, especially after the vote of confidence given to the present netminders by Yzerman.
Saturday’s contest against the Buffalo Sabres brought more of the same from Smith.