Smith keeps improving on revamped third line

Smith keeps improving on revamped third line
November 23, 2013, 10:00 pm
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(AP Photo)

It’s becoming increasingly clear that even the Bruins might not have known how good a player Reilly Smith would become in their system.

The 22-year-old winger set a new career-high when he backhanded his fourth goal of the season past Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward in the second period, and was a vital contributor in Boston’s 3-2 overtime win over Carolina on Saturday afternoon. The play was a pretty good example of what Smith is bringing to the table for Boston: a player unafraid to drop himself into the thick of things allowed him to pick up the rebound of a Carl Soderberg shot from the slot as he moved across the slot area, and his skill took over as he elevated a backhanded bid for the goal.

Smith waited for some shooting daylight to show itself while Chris Kelly engaged in the battle in front of the Carolina net, and didn’t miss with the backhand.

Equal parts grit and skill have made Smith an excellent fit on a Bruins third line that’s helped carry the team over the last couple of weeks as the top six forwards have struggled to finish plays. Those recent streaks of production leave Smith third on the Bruins with 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists), and behind a couple of guys named Milan Lucic and David Krejci among offensive producers.

“We’re talking about a young player here. I keep saying it all the time, we always seem to overlook his age, and he’s a young player,” said Claude Julien. “[I like] the way I think he’s handled himself in pressure situations, and handling the puck a little bit better while holding onto it.

“At the same time, I thought tonight he shot the puck a little bit more; he had a little bit better of a nose for the net and looking to make plays versus shooting the puck. So he’s really turned a corner, and is really coming along well for a young player.”

Smith now has four goals and 15 points in 23 games for the Bruins this season after managing just three goals and nine points in 37 games for the Dallas Stars last year.

He’s opened plenty of eyes among his new teammates. Smith and Jarome Iginla clashed several times in the Western Conference last season, but the former Flames captain admitted Boston’s version of Smith is much more memorable than the Dallas version of him.

Plenty of that has to do with getting time as a point man on Boston’s second power play unit while playing with gifted linemates, and not being relegated to a straight energy line role as he was with the Stars.

“I didn’t know him very much before this year. He played in Dallas, but I don’t know if he had the same opportunity as he has here,” said Iginla. “He’s back on the PP as a point man, and that’s a high pressure situation for a forward. It’s a higher pressure situation than maybe some people realize. He looks great back there running it with Dougie [Hamilton].

“On Five-on-five, he and [Kelly] and Carl [Soderberg] just keep reading off each other, and seem to be getting better and better.

“With his one-on-one skills you see him beat almost one guy a night when he’s going down the wing, and his patience around the net kind of looked ho-hum. In that situation a lot of times guys are just whacking at it. So it’s been great to see another young guy that’s being put in high pressure situations by the coaching staff, and that he’s enjoying it…and thriving in it. He looks very confident to me.”

That makes it eight goals and 25 points along with a plus-11 combined for Smith and Loui Eriksson this season for the Bruins, and 16 goals, 32 points and a plus-9 for Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley in Dallas.

It’s not even, of course, but it’s also probably a lot closer than some people might have expected.

There’s also the matter of about $5 million in salary cap savings that the Bruins are receiving for offensive production that’s in the same neighborhood.

That it’s even close really speaks to how Smith opened eyes during his first training camp in Boston, and has blossomed as a third line right wing while consistently producing with Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg. Smith moved around a little bit in October among the lines as injuries and Brad Marchand’s struggles necessitated the changes, but he’s found a comfort zone playing consistently on the third line.

Now it’s a matter of getting better every day for a young player with some potential to keep growing his game.

“Every day gets a little bit easier.  When you stay with the same linemates, for a few weeks or a month, every day gets easier, chemistry builds every day,” said Smith. “So you just take it day by day, but I think everything is going pretty well right now. You just try to keep the ball rolling.

“Probably a few weeks or a month ago, I probably wouldn’t have done that. I probably would have tried to get it on net right away. With every day you build confidence.”

At this point Smith’s confidence should be at an all-time high as he’s putting up bigger and better numbers at the NHL level. The hope is that the playmaking abilities, the skill level and the willingness to sprinkle a little grit in his game will continue to make him the ideal player for a Bruins third line that’s once again functioning at both ends like it did three years ago with some guys named Kelly, Ryder and Peverley.