WILMINGTON — Goal scorers do their best work when they find open spaces on the ice. Sounds simple.
Getting open, however, is far from easy.
“Everyone’s so big and everyone’s so strong with long reaches,” said the Bruins’ Matt Fraser. “You’ve got to try and find open areas. That’s when you get pucks.”
Reilly Smith, Fraser’s two-time teammate, is proving that identifying and claiming unmarked ice can lead to goals. Smith, who accompanied Fraser, Loui Eriksson, and Joe Morrow on the Dallas-to-Boston shuttle on July 4, scored a pair of goals in the Bruins’ 4-1 win over Buffalo Saturday night. Smith has 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points, second on the team behind David Krejci (7-24—31).
Smith, promoted to the second line to replace Eriksson (concussion), is not a physical presence. Smith is 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds. The 22-year-old is not an explosive skater. Smith doesn’t have the muscle on his stick like Jarome Iginla, the right wing with the team’s heaviest shot.
But Smith is smart. He’s slippery. Smith is the Bruins’ version of Matt Moulson — a clever, left-shot wing with a GPS programmed to home in on vacant patches of ice. It’s an innate skill that Smith has had since college, when he pumped in 30 goals in 39 games as a Miami University junior.
“I think it’s one of the things that helped me in college to have success,” Smith said. “And probably last year in the AHL.”
The Tyler Seguin blockbuster trade has provided both anticipated and unexpected results. Both the Stars and the Bruins knew that Seguin’s talent could translate into point-per-game production.
Seguin hasn’t disappointed. In 33 games, the No. 1 center has 18 goals and 17 assists. Seguin and left wing Jamie Benn — the latter is a near-lock for Team Canada duties in the upcoming Olympics — have teamed to be one of the league’s more dangerous offensive tandems.
On the other hand, the Bruins didn’t dare think that Eriksson would suffer two concussions within 45 days. Nor did they figure that Smith would be a better fit alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron than even a healthy Eriksson.
The Bruins projected Smith to be the No. 3 right wing on a line with Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly. But Smith’s varsity spot wasn’t guaranteed. Last season, the Stars assigned Smith to Texas, their AHL affiliate, five times, including once before the start of the lockout.
Smith’s AHL days are over.
“This is the first time he’s gotten a good shot at playing at this level and making sure he has the opportunity to play in the areas we feel he can excel in,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “He’s done a great job. He’s a crafty player. He’s a smart player. He makes a lot of good plays. Very reliable. I’ve liked his game since the beginning of the year.”
On Dec. 7, when Brooks Orpik’s hit caused Eriksson’s second concussion, the Bruins placed Smith on the second line. Smith rewarded his coaches for the move. In the first period, Smith tied the game with a slap shot past Marc-Andre Fleury. Smith didn’t have much time to let his shot loose. He didn’t need it. Before Fleury could get his glove ready, Smith fired the puck over the goalie to tie the game against the Penguins, 1-1.
In the third, Smith set up Zdeno Chara’s winning goal. Smith, stickhandling in the right corner, read that Chara had joined the rush. Smith whipped a seam pass onto Chara’s stick. Chara ripped the puck past Fleury to give the Bruins the 3-2 win.
Most recently, Smith clicked again with Soderberg, his former linemate. Soderberg and Smith have a set play on the man-advantage, where they skate on the second unit. Soderberg, the right-side goal-line man, gets the puck down low. Soderberg’s first look is to Smith, the point man, sneaking back door.
On Saturday, with Linus Omark in the box for hooking, the two turned to the play again. Even before Ryan Spooner, the right-side half-wall quarterback, had received a pass from Bergeron, Smith had anticipated the upcoming sequence. Once Spooner shuttled the puck down to Soderberg, Smith approached the bottom of the left circle. After Soderberg dished to Smith, Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth didn’t have enough time to slide over to stop the winger’s shot.
Smith has three power-play goals. All three are results of the Soderberg-to-Smith back-door play.
“Carl does a great job finding open space, especially on the power play, to drag people there and then draw the puck out,” Smith said. “He’s the one doing all the work. It’s him and Spooner on the half-wall, so I just try to find the back door and find an opening. They keep on giving it to me, so it works out well.”
Fraser knows Smith well. They spent parts of last season between the NHL and the AHL. There’s something different about Smith with his new organization.
“You see him on the ice, you see how much confidence he’s playing with,” Fraser said. “Not swagger, but I think confidence is a good word to describe it. Where one guy might dump in the puck, he makes a play with it. He’s a fun player to watch.”