The long wait ends for Mike Smith on Friday.
Tampa Bay's 28-year-old goaltender has recovered from a fractured finger that left him sidelined during a four-game road swing last week. Smith, who posted a 13-18-7 record last season, is expected to go the distance at Florida in the opener of a home-and-home series, and he may split time with Dan Ellis in Saturday night's rematch at Tampa.
"It (finger) feels pretty good and it'll be nice to get into a game," said Smith, who is eager to atone for last year's .900 save percentage and make a good early impression on new coach Guy Boucher. "I've been chomping at the bit to get in there. I've got a fresh start right now. Whatever happened last year doesn't matter."
Smith was Tampa Bay's key acquisition in the 2008 deal that sent popular center Brad Richards to Dallas, but injuries and inconsistency have limited his effectiveness.
"To be fair to him," Boucher said, "the first game I'm expecting Mike not to be at his best. The reality is this will be his first real game since last year. His timing might be off. He needs some time to get adjusted to the speed of the game."
Boucher is intrigued by Smith's exceptional stick-handling skills behind the net and he's anxious to see how the rangy 6-foot-4 goalie performs in game conditions.
"He's a big man, but he's also one of our top athletes," Boucher said.
Numbers have always been a part of sports, but Boucher doesn't want his players dwelling on personal statistical accomplishments.
"That's where they suffocate,'' Boucher said. "You wonder why they aren't performing? Going after points or other types of numbers, that's what kills them. That's something for fans, media, even for a coach sometimes to look at, but when you start putting that in players' minds, you lose them. I don't care what (hockey) level, you lose them.''
For Boucher, success is measured in small increments.
"For us, there's no number in mind,'' he said. "We've got to get better every day. If we don't get better today, that's a sin on our team.''
Nuts and Bolts
The Lightning assigned C Marc-Antoine Pouliot to their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Va. ... LW Simon Gagne leads Tampa Bay with a plus-4 mark in two exhibition games. ... The Lightning's opening-night opponent, the Atlanta Thrashers, are 0-4 in the preseason under new coach Craig Ramsay.