MONTREAL — Just for a second, as Reilly Smith neared the net, he lost the puck. He had been hoping to go backhand, in an effort to beat Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, but there was too much going on in his head. He adjusted. He sent it between Bishop’s legs. He scored.
It was the first time Smith had put the puck in the net in more than a month, having gone 10 games since his last goal. And while it didn’t add to his current tally of 18, the score that gave the Bruins a shootout win over Tampa Bay Saturday night could be a catalyst to get Smith back to his goal-scoring ways — or it could, at least, help his confidence.
“You try to build on every positive you can,” said Smith, who acknowledged that there were nerves when coach Claude Julien sent him out on a hunch in the seventh round of the shootout. “Hopefully I can get some momentum going.”
When Smith arrived from Dallas in the Tyler Seguin-Loui Eriksson trade, few — even on Causeway Street — thought he would be the team’s leading scorer halfway through the season.
He wasn’t a throw-in in the trade, but no one (including Smith) thought he would top the Bruins’ proven goal scorers.
Then his pace started dropping off. After scoring his 15th goal on Jan. 4, the 42d game of the season, Smith has scored just three in the next 22 games. (And those three came in a bunch, in consecutive games on Jan. 25, 27, and 28.)
“It’s tough, especially because one of my goals is to help out this team offensively, so if I’m not doing that, you try to work on other facets of your game, try to help out in other spots,” Smith said. “But I think I’m most productive when I’m getting on the scoreboard and helping the team out offensively, so you get on yourself a little bit to do that.
“So that’s one thing I try to focus on is not trying to get overly upset if the puck’s not going in or a play’s not happening, but just to keep on trying to make plays and be able to change a game.”
That’s not easy, especially for a 22-year-old in his first season with a new team, one trying to demonstrate his worth to veteran teammates and coaches. In that effort, Smith said, linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have proven supportive.
“There’s times when I’m starting to get a little upset about myself, they’re pretty good at keeping me back and keeping me at an even keel,” Smith said.
In some ways, Smith’s torrid pace in December, when he had nine goals, has set him up for moments like these, moments when the scoring doesn’t come so easily, moments that were bound to happen.
“I think he’s hard on himself, but again he’s a young player that’s exceeded every expectation we had of him, so all of a sudden because now the expectations become real high, the minute he slumps a little bit, everybody’s worried about him,” Julien said. “I think that’s just a natural trend for a young player to go through.
“For me, I just wanted to see him work his way through it, which he’s doing. [Saturday] was a great situation for him to go win us a hockey game and hopefully take a little bit of pressure off him and hopefully get some confidence back in his game.”
It was a nice cap to a game in which Smith had spent some time away from his usual linemates, with Julien pushing Daniel Paille into Smith’s spot with Bergeron and Marchand for a few shifts in the third period. That left Smith skating with fourth-liners Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton.
“You obviously see where coach is coming from, but you try not to change your game too much,” said Smith.
That’s the overall plan, too, because he knows that his game works. It is what got him to 18 goals, now tied with Bergeron for fourth on the team, and 45 points, also fourth.
He also knew this time would come, knew there would be a drought for him, brought it up in interviews when he seemed to be scoring a goal or two a night.
“I mentioned that just as hot as you can get, scoring goals game after game, you can go through cold streaks just as easy,” he pointed out.
That’s where he is now. But while he is clearly hard on himself for the lack of scoring, he also acknowledged that he’s in a much better position to handle this than he would have been earlier in his career.
He’s not worried about losing minutes, something he was vulnerable to last season in Dallas. That had gotten into his head at times, made him negative, made him worry. It’s not an issue any longer.
Still, Smith is keen to get back to using his minutes to put points on the board, to put goals in the back of the net, to justify the expectations now heaped on him after a strong first few months.
“I’ve, I think, held myself to a higher standard this year just because the opportunity they’ve given me is a lot different from the amount of minutes and the amount of time I had last year on the ice,” he said.
“So when you’re used to scoring a lot and it’s not happening, it’s obviously a little tough. But the biggest focus is just to do what I can, try to do the little things to help the team win games.
“Sometimes you just have to try to keep it easy and just make the plays that are there instead of trying to force the ones that aren’t.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.