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Lightning goalies Dan Ellis, left, and Mike Smith share a strong friendship dating back several years to their time in the minor league system of the Dallas Stars organization. ((Chris O'Meara/Associated Press))

You can bet Dan Ellis and Mike Smith of the Tampa Bay Lightning vented while sharing a meal on the plane following the team's wacky 8-7 win at Philadelphia on Nov. 18.

It's something friends do, something Ellis and Smith are: buddies first and goaltending partners second.

Ellis started in net that night and was beaten on four of the 10 Flyers' shots he faced in 15-plus minutes before Smith was summoned for mop-up duty. He picked up the win despite allowing three goals on 22 shots.

"A lot of people talk about a competition between goaltenders," Ellis said in a phone interview from Tampa Bay before travelling to Philadelphia. "We're not competing against each other, we're competing against other teams.

Lightning lack No. 1

 Player  Record  GAA  Save%
 Dan Ellis  5-4-3  2.85  .895
 Mike Smith  8-4-0  3.36  .879

The Tampa Bay Lightning sat fifth in the NHL's Eastern Conference and sixth overall among 30 teams through Nov. 28 despite the second-worst goals-against average.

Dan Ellis and Mike Smith each have appeared in 14 games this season and combined for a 3.21 GAA. Only the Edmonton Oilers, who occupy last spot in the West, are worse at 3.86.

And it's not as though the Lightning duo is overworked as Tampa Bay gives up an average of 27.6 shots per game, second only to the St. Louis Blues (26.9).

Above are Ellis's and Smith's numbers through 24 regular-season games.

"When you have a team focus as your number one [priority] you don't worry about being No. 1 goalie or backup or this and that."

Ellis, who is in his first season with the Lightning, added a netminder's game could spiral out of control if he starts thinking about who's No. 1 or No. 2, and prefers to leave such decisions to rookie head coach Guy Boucher.

Ellis looked as though he would grab the No. 1 job with a stretch of solid starts earlier this month, but has returned to the Tampa Bay net just once since Philadelphia.

Boucher had run with Smith, who stopped 83 of 88 shots for a .943 save percentage through Nov. 24 since turning away all 11 shots he faced in the third period versus the Flyers. But on Nov. 26, Smith allowed four goals on 18 shots in a 6-0 loss to Washington.

Inspiration

During his recent turnaround, Smith was quick to praise the Lightning defence, while forward Steven Stamkos has said the fifth-year NHL goalie is an inspiration to his teammates. Ellis, however, remains Smith's biggest supporter in good times and bad.

'We hit it off right away. It's something I feel has helped both of us playing together again with a new team.' — Dan Ellis on his friendship with goalie partner Mike Smith

"If a guy's struggling you go to him and pick him up," said Ellis, "and if a guy's doing well you give him a pat on the back. When you're friends you just stay by each other's side."

It has been that way between Ellis and Smith since the Dallas Stars selected them a year apart — Ellis in the second round (60th overall) in 2000 and Smith in Round 5 (161st overall) the following summer.

They would see each other at training camps and formed a closer friendship when they spent a portion of the 2003-04 season tending goal for the Utah Grizzlies of the American Hockey League. Two years later, they were the goalie tandem for the AHL Iowa Stars.

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Lightning's Dan Ellis, above, and goalie partner Mike Smith have been looking behind too much this season. They have combined for a 3.21 GAA, second-worst in the NHL. ((Nick Wass/Associated Press))

"We hit it off right away. It's something I feel has helped both of us playing together again with a new team," Ellis said.

"We're both easy-going guys, we hang out a lot together on the road going to dinners, sit near each other on the plane. We're great friends."

When Ellis became an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after three full seasons in Nashville, he needed to decide quickly where to sign as several goalies filled the market. Ellis knew Tampa Bay was a hot spot, with its revamped lineup and front office, including owner Jeff Vinik and general manager Steve Yzerman.

In a matter of hours, Ellis signed on for two years and was reunited with Smith, who would help his friend adapt to a new team, new city and new system.

Easy decision

"Knowing what each other is like, the fact our [goaltending] styles are somewhat similar and being together in the past made it easy to know and decide I was coming here," said Ellis.

With the friendship on solid ground, Ellis and Smith are focused on earning Boucher's trust. It starts with playing a consistent game, which Ellis and Smith could only claim for short periods this season.

Only twice has a Lightning goaltender made three consecutive starts as inconsistency has caused a relay in net.

Smith won his first four decisions of the season but allowed three or more goals in five of six starts, leading to a save percentage of .866.

Ellis got his first shutout of the season and 11th of his NHL career on Oct. 30 at Phoenix. He extended his goalless run to 125 minutes 57 seconds until Anaheim's Teemu Selanne beat him in a Nov. 3 contest.

Since then, Ellis has shut out Toronto and lost four of six decisions, surrendering four or more goals in four of those outings.

"We have to earn Boucher's confidence and earn his respect," Ellis told the St. Petersburg Times. "Because of the way the games have gone — we've had good games, bad games, lots of goals, no goals — it's not there yet."

Still, Ellis's teammates, who are largely responsible for the Lightning's 13-8-3 mark through Nov. 28 and a big reason the team spent some time atop the Eastern Conference earlier this season, are sticking by him and by Smith.

"We have a lot of confidence in our team and ourselves, and goalies are a big position, and we have full confidence in what these guys can do," said alternate captain Martin St. Louis.

Hey, what are friends for?