Contrary to my instinctive guess, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher opted to start Mike Smith instead of Dwayne Roloson in Game 5. The Boston Bruins beat Smith and the Lightning 3-1 in that contest, taking a 3-2 series lead, thus leaving Boucher with a conundrum going into Game 6. Will he give Smith another chance or go back to Roloson with the team on the verge of elimination?
Why the Lightning should start Smith
Many will study the titanic triumph of Tim Thomas and think that Smith was the weak link of that game (especially since Smith allowed two goals on 19 shots), but Smith didn’t have much of a chance on either Bruins tally. The Lightning carried most of the play in Game 5, but Boston managed a few breaks and Thomas stood on his head after allowing a goal on the first shot he faced.
Smith hasn’t made many mistakes in his scant 2011 playoff appearances. He stopped all 29 of the shots he faced in two relief stints for Roloson in this series, putting aside all eight in Tampa Bay’s 6-5 Game 2 loss and stopping 21 out of 21 during the Bolts’ come-from-behind win in Game 4. Again, it’s tough to beat him up too much for the two one-timers that foiled him in Game 5, so he really hasn’t allowed a softie in the postseason so far.
The two biggest strengths Smith brings to the ice are his size and puck-handling skills. He must have absorbed some passing lessons from his days backing up Marty Turco in Dallas because he’s very comfortable moving the puck around. That stands in stark contrast to both Roloson and Thomas, who are often an adventure when the puck is on their sticks.
While you won’t confuse Smith with Martin Brodeur from a talent standpoint, his passing skills make him almost as nice of a fit for Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system as Brodeur was for Jacques Lemaire’s neutral zone trap.
The advantages of going back to Roloson
Scrappy old Roloson might not be as polished as the more-orthodox Smith is in some areas, but he is significantly more playoff-proven. Roloson has played in 48 postseason games in his career (going 27-17) while all three of Smith’s career playoff appearances came in this series. If that doesn’t underscore the experience disparity enough for you, there’s also Roloson’s uncanny 6-0 record in elimination games.
It’s also tough to deny the notion that Roloson got them this far and deserves a chance to see this thing through. Even after getting pulled in two of his four starts against Boston, Roloson still has a sterling overall save percentage (92.5) and a solid 2.51 GAA in the 2011 playoffs.
Roloson has been the go-to guy since he was traded to Tampa Bay, so a vote for Rollie is a vote for stability.
Plenty of motivation for both goalies
One interesting subplot is that these goalies will be unrestricted free agents this summer. They’re both hoping to improve their stations in the free agent market by winning big playoff games and each one wants to prove they are still relevant at the NHL level. The 29-year-old Smith wants to show that he deserves at least a backup/1b role while the 41-year-old Roloson might want to play another season before hanging up his pads.
If keeping their team in the playoffs wasn’t much of a dangling carrot, securing a job for next season should provide ample motivation for both Smith and Roloson.
The bright side of this story is that Boucher has two solid options in net. Roloson is more likely to “steal” a win while Smith’s puck-moving skills mesh nicely with Tampa Bay’s defensive system. To some extent, Boucher has nothing to lose … unless his team loses, of course.