As the Lightning have been stockpiling victories in the early part of the season, tied for the top of the Eastern Conference with a 7-2-1 record, pundits pointed toward the team's goaltending. And for good reason.
Although Tampa Bay jumped out to the team's best start since 2003-04 with the third-best record through nine games in franchise history, some would say the team was winning despite its goaltending.
Mike Smith, with a 4-0 record, is ranked 38th out of 41 listed goaltenders in both goals-against-average at 3.59 and save percentage, .868, hardly Vezina-caliber numbers for a goalie with an undefeated record.
Dan Ellis, meanwhile, didn't fare much better in his first four starts, compiling a 3.67 goals-against-average and .870 save percentage, although the numbers were skewed from his start in Florida, where he allowed three goals on 15 shots in 15 minutes of action.
But in the past two games, Ellis has turned things around in a big way.
Coming in relief of Smith on Wednesday against Pittsburgh, Ellis pitched a shutout out of the bullpen, stopping all 24 shots he faced as Tampa Bay rallied for a 5-3 victory. On Saturday, Ellis put in the full effort, stopping all 23 shots he saw in posting the 11th shutout of his career and first in a Tampa Bay uniform.
In his past two games, Ellis has dropped his overall goals against average to 2.37, 12th in the league, and raised his save percentage to .912, good for 19th overall in the league.
"It's been a learning process, learning everything that (goaltender coach) Frantz (Jean) has been teaching me, there are some adjustments and a little bit of a learning curve,'' Ellis said of what's worked for him recently. "I've just tried to play simpler, try to get my feet moving a lot quicker so I'm not reaching in to pucks so that they are coming to me and I think the more as a goalie that you can get your feet set, usually if you can beat a pass or something like that you have a better chance of stopping it. So I'm just trying to keep a good puck focus, good foot movement and try to follow the rebounds.''Including the last period of a loss to Nashville, Ellis has a shutout streak of 113 minutes, 35 seconds heading into Tampa Bay's next game on Wednesday in Anaheim. And while the defense in front has been solid, including 19 blocked shots on Saturday, Ellis has provided exactly what Lightning coach Guy Boucher is looking for from whomever starts in net.
"He's been calm in net and that's why he's been fronting shots, he hasn't been battling shots and what it does is it reflects on the rest of the team,'' Boucher said. "If he's calm taking those shots we are calm defending, too. It's been real solid on his part, for sure.''Center Steven Stamkos said the team has fed off of Ellis' play in the past two games.
"He just looks so calm and cool in the net and it helps for us as players to see the confidence he has in his game and it gives us confidence,'' said Stamkos, who leads the league with 19 points. "He's been great. It seems like his rebound control has been unbelievable, he's swallowing up pucks and even when he does give a rebound he's kicking them to the outside, so he's making it easy for the defense and the forwards coming back.''Now, Ellis just wants to try to keep the ball rolling.
"A lot of times you get on rolls like this and people tend to relax and get away from what got them there, so I think it's important to stay focused, enjoy the wins when they happen but get right back ready for the next game,'' Ellis said. "You just try to keep working at practice, you think about the things that got you to feeling that good and that's usually working hard in practice, usually not taking it for granted.''