Bolts, Smith Have Their First Clunker

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIOctober 16, 2009

Now the pressure mounts for young Tampa Bay top netminder, Mike Smith.

A day after allowing seven goals in the Lightning's 7-1 debacle in Ottawa, Smith now faces the questions of "what's wrong?"

Smith is coming off of a severe concussion that ended his season last year and has struggled in his first four games this season. Meanwhile, backup Antero Nittymaki has played extremely well, increasing the pressure on Smith.

In Smith's defense, he had little of it against the Senators. Tampa Bay was out shot 35-17 and Smith could really only be faulted for two bad goals.

Lightning coach Rick Tocchet was obviously none too happy.

"Two short-handed goals against, it's embarrassing," Tocchet told the St. Petersburg Times . "It's an alarming thing right now. I know it's only Game Six, but when you give up three short-handed goals in two games, there's going to be some video, some talking, and there might be some changes."

Smith currently is suffering through one of the worst slumps of his career. A career low in save percentage (.864) and a career high goals against average (4.08) have led to his 0-2-2 record.

He has also looked dreadful in shootouts, allowing four goals in five shots.

To their credit, his teammates are not pointing the finger.

"Our team defense the last few games is not good enough to give us a chance to play in this league," Lightning defenseman Mattais Ohlund said to the Times .

The book on Nittymaki is he's a streak goalie. When he's good, he's among the best in the league. When he's not, AHL teams could put up five goals on him.

Right now Nittymaki is hot, going 2-0 in his two starts with a sterling 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage. The hockey team seems to play with much more confidence when the Finn is between the pipes.

As Philadelphia's primary backup for the last five years, Nittymaki has posted a winning record 64-61 while having a career GAA of 3.00 and a career save percentage of .902.

He has never played more than 46 games in a season.

The question for Tocchet now is do they allow Smith to work out the bugs or go with the hot hand in Nittymaki?

As the Lightning found out last season, a slow start in the season can leave you behind the eight ball all year. You don't want to be in chase mode the rest of the year.

Also, before coming to Tampa Bay, Mike Smith had never held the full time starter role either.

Current Avalanche goalie Craig Anderson (5-1-1, 1.99 GAA, .940 save pct.) has told as a backup at Florida and Chicago for as long as Nittymaki. His hockey team is winning games with him putting up impressive numbers comparable to Nittymaki.

Also remember that Tocchet wasn't here when the team made the trade to send Brad Richards to Dallas for Smith. He isn't married to the guy, even though it would look pretty bad for the franchise to have traded for an perennial All-Star for a failure at goaltender.

It's not Smith's fault he got hurt or that he's struggling to find his game. Injuries happen. Still, there's only so long the Lightning can hold his hand and wait for him to get back to form.

And what is his form? He's under .500 as a goaltender for his career. Smith himself has never started more than 41 games in a season.

It's a tough choice, but one that needs to be made very soon.