BOSTON (CBS) – In his first season with the Bruins, forward Reilly Smith scored 20 goals.
But that production wasn’t the most impressive part of his second season in the NHL.
More amazing was how he emerged as a reliable two-way player capable of spending the entire season on right wing next to left winger Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. That line goes up against the opponents’ top lines every night, and still Smith was plus-28.
Smith’s work without the puck was on full display just moments before he flaunted his skills with it in the third period of the Bruins’ 5-3 win at TD Garden against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference second round series.
The series is now tied 1-1 heading to Montreal for Game 3 on Saturday because the Bruins rallied from 3-1 down in the third period. Smith both made sure the Bruins took possession of the puck after tying the game and he scored what proved to be the game-winning goal at 16:28.
Smith’s unrelenting hustle on the backcheck forced Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher to turn the puck over on what was supposed to be a 2-on-2 scoring chance for the Canadiens. Back the other way, Bruins defenseman Torey Krug slid a cross-ice pass off Gallagher’s stick to Smith, who settled a wobbly puck and then beat goaltender Carey Price with a wrist shot.
“There was a huge momentum swing in that third period as soon as we got that first goal and it kind of just built up until that moment,” Smith said. “So there was a lot of emotions and a lot of passion going in to that. I was obviously just really happy that it went in to the back of the net because, especially in this series, Price has stood on his head a couple times where we thought we had for sure goals and we he has made big saves.”
The blossoming of Smith’s all-around game was a stroke of both skill in scouting and the product of Smith’s hard work. There’s no telling what kind of player the 23-year-old Smith will be five, 10 years down the road. Whether he’ll keep producing points and goals is impossible to predict. That he’s built the foundation of a solid player worthy of any top six in the NHL is irrefutable. As many Bruins players have proven the past several seasons, strong defense and play away from the puck can turn into enough offense that you don’t need to pop in 30 goals and the lineup doesn’t require snipers at every turn.
You didn’t have to see any of Smith’s games to know he was a perfect fit on the Bruins’ shutdown forward line. All you have to know is that with the exception of a few games at the start and a few at the end of the season, coach Claude Julien kept Smith in that position. When the season started, Loui Eriksson seemed ticketed for that spot. Eriksson’s injuries changed that plan and Smith thrived in the role.
Julien benefited from Smith’s maturation and production. But the coach also stuck with Smith when the forward was toiling in a 30-game stretch that saw him score just two goals to close out the regular season.
Now Smith has three goals, including two game-winners, in seven playoff games.
“He plays like a veteran. And he’s very calm in those kind of situations,” Julien said. “You don’t see him make too many big mistakes because he’s a smart hockey player, and some guys have it. It’s a knack he’s had from the start, and with his experience playing with guys like Bergeron and Marchand, he’s just gotten better.”
Smith played 37 games for the Dallas Stars in the lockout shortened season prior to the summer trade that sent him and Eriksson to Boston as part of the package for Tyler Seguin. That with less than a full season’s worth of games under his belt Smith was able to not let his scoring slump affect the other areas of the game is a testament to the type of player he is and is reminiscent of Bergeron, who’s now a perennial Selke Trophy candidate. Even as a teenager in the NHL, Bergeron built his game off of his defense and let the offense flow. When the offense wasn’t there, he was still a difference maker.
That’s what Smith longs to be.
“Yeah, I think there is a lot more to my game than just scoring goals. I have learned a lot with playing with [Bergeron]. This year especially, him being such a tremendous two-way forward, you pick up little things,” Smith said. “Probably coming in here a lot of people thought that was the only part of my game and I think playing with [Bergeron] and [Marchand], you know, a lot of leadership and the character has helped my defensive game tremendously this year.”
Smith’s emergence as a two-way standout was a key to the success of the Bruins’ four-line attack during the regular season and that has continued in the postseason. His continued improvement will better the Bruins’ chances of going deep in this postseason and provide a lot of options in terms of personnel moves beyond this year.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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