Boucher makes right call despite loss

Every sports fan knows the feeling: Your team is faced with a critical decision at the defining moment of its season. Naturally, you clamor for the choice that is (a) based on recent performance and (b) politically unwieldy.

To hell with conventional wisdom, you say. You want the hot hand, the younger guy, the player who has frustrated you the least. You want to win, rather than preserve the ego of an aging star. But you don’t get your hopes up, because you figure that conservatism will rule the day – particularly when the potential for criticism is greatest.

So, you resign yourself to being disappointed by the conventional move . . . unless your team is coached by a bold Quebecois named Guy Boucher. He doesn’t confuse the safe move for the right one. And his moxie will make him a champion – if not this year, then soon.

On Monday night, Boucher became one of my favorite coaches in professional sports – and not because he won. In fact, he lost. The Boston Bruins defeated his Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Lightning now trail in the series 3-2. Summer could be 60 minutes away for Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and all the rest.

But let’s forget about Tampa’s hockey heroes for a moment. This story involves three characters: Boucher, Dwayne Roloson, and Mike Smith.

Boucher, 39, has engineered a dramatic turnaround in his first season as Tampa Bay coach. He is famous for having a facial scar of uncertain origin, a degree from McGill (the Harvard of Canada), academic training in sports psychology, and, we are learning, a calculated audacity.

Roloson, 41, has stopped pucks in the NHL since 1996. He became the Lightning’s No. 1 goaltender after arriving in a midseason trade from the Islanders. All was well with him as recently as the previous round of these playoffs, when Tampa Bay swept the high-powered Washington Capitals.

Smith, 29, began the postseason as Roloson’s backup. Until very recently, his NHL career was unremarkable, having been interrupted by concussions more than once. But Roloson’s struggles pressed Smith into duty twice during this series, and he didn’t allow a goal on 29 shots. He was credited with the Game 4 win after the Lightning rallied from a 3-0 deficit to stun the Bruins.

That brings us to Monday afternoon, when Boucher still hadn’t announced his Game 5 starter.

Smith, of course, was the choice of many armchair coaches in Tampa and St. Petersburg – and in Kingston, Ontario, which happens to be his hometown. The logic was simple enough: Start the guy with the 1.000 save percentage.

But Boucher, in a couple of carefully crafted statements, hinted that he would stick with the veteran. Boucher never came out and said it, but he talked about how Roloson was preparing as he usually does, which sounded like hockeyspeak for, “Roli will play.”

Well, Roli didn’t play.

Remember what I said about Boucher’s study of sports psychology? Not only did Boucher know that he wanted Smith to start, but Boucher knew how he wanted to tell him.

Smith never had started an NHL playoff game, nor had he entered a game in this postseason with the Lightning tied or ahead. To borrow from the baseball lexicon, he was going from mop-up man to starting pitcher in the middle of a League Championship Series. Such an abrupt change in responsibility might make a young man’s mind wander.

So, Boucher waited to tell Smith until after Monday’s morning skate.

And Smith appreciated it.

“I was hanging around, waiting for the bus,” Smith said. “He called me into his office and pretty well said, ‘It’s your time to have some fun. Just go out there and enjoy yourself. Play like you did the last game. Give the team a chance to win.’ ”

Implicit in the message: Don’t tell anyone. Or at least, that’s how Smith interpreted it. He didn’t tell his family. He didn’t even tell his wife. The world didn’t find out until the lineup sheets were distributed in the Garden press box.

“I kept it to myself,” Smith said. “I think a lot of the guys didn’t know until I got here for the game.”

Did the strategy work? Yes, in every way except the final score. “He played really well,” Boucher said.

To be clear, Smith wasn’t the reason Tampa Bay lost. The Lightning forwards must be better, luckier, or both. Let’s put it this way: On a night when Tim Thomas was brilliant – “He’s making miracles,” Boucher said – the Lightning goalie would have needed to pitch a shutout in order to win. And Roloson had done that just once in 15 games this postseason.

Smith allowed two goals, both on well-executed one-timers – one off a draw, one after a sluggish line change. Hard to find too much fault there. Then the Bruins added an empty-netter. “I could’ve made another save or two, and it would have been a different game,” Smith said, “but for the most part, I think I did a pretty good job.”

Now the focus shifts to Boucher’s choice for Wednesday’s Game 6. Of course, it would be out of character for him to reveal the starter until he absolutely must.

Boucher praised Smith’s play after Game 5, saying he deserved the chance to play Monday because he had “been terrific for us for a long, long time.” But in his next breath, Boucher described Roloson’s benching as a “breather” – even invoking the name of Roberto Luongo, whom the Vancouver Canucks sat after a particularly heinous performance against Chicago in the opening round. The Canucks and Luongo have done famously since, with a trip to the finals one win away.

Don’t be surprised if Boucher keeps everyone waiting again – goaltenders included. The man with the scar knows psychology almost as well as he knows hockey. The Lightning are here because Guy Boucher isn’t afraid to go against the book. Now isn’t the time for him to change – or for any of us to criticize him for having a backbone that rivals his intellect.