Two quick strikes early in the third-period had given the Rangers a one-goal lead late in Tuesday's game against the Washington Capitals at the Garden. Then, defenseman Brendan Smith retrieved a Capitals dump-in out of the right corner at his own goal line. A quick flick of the wrists, and suddenly, the puck was on the stick blade of Artemi Panarin, 110 feet away.
A couple seconds later, after Panarin scored on the breakaway, the Rangers had an important insurance goal in a game they would go on to win, 5-2. It was the finish of a brilliant third period by Panarin, who’d set up goals by Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead.
But the pass by Smith to spring him, though…
As the Rangers played their 36th game of the season Thursday in Buffalo against the Sabres, who ended their 18-game losing streak with Wednesday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the 32-year-old Smith was enjoying perhaps his best season in a Blueshirt in 2021. After being a healthy scratch on opening night, Smith had played in 28 of the team’s 35 games entering Thursday, including the last 21 in a row. And his 15:55 average time on ice is the most he’s had since 2017-18, the first season of the four-year, $17.4 million contract he signed after the 2017 playoffs.
"I think he's taken advantage of the opportunity in front of him,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said of Smith. "He's done an awful lot of things for us in the last two-and-a-half years, and he makes that great play for the goal that made it 4-2 the other night. He's also done a lot of good things for us. When you're as young as we are, and you've been a guy that's been around as long as he has, he brings an awful lot to the table on and off the ice.’’
The 6-2, 200-pound Smith averaged over 17 minutes a game in 2017-18, but it wasn’t a good year for him. Then-coach Alain Vigneault was less than thrilled with Smith, who came into training camp out of shape. And after a slow start, Smith was eventually waived and demoted to the minor leagues.
But when Quinn – who had recruited him to play college hockey back when he was a teenager – was hired as coach for the 2018-19 season, Smith came to camp in terrific shape, looking to salvage his NHL career. He made the club that fall, in a supporting role, as a bottom pair guy, and sometimes a seventh defenseman. He even played most of 2019-20 as a fourth-line winger before the trade of Brady Skjei at the deadline put him back in the defensive rotation.
This season, he’s been the seventh defenseman, has served as a part-time mentor to rookie K’Andre Miller at times, and now seems to have settled in as the third pair anchor, helping to bring along his young partner, Libor Hajek. He’s been a valuable penalty killer when called on and even spent some time on the power play when injuries hit hard in February. Entering Thursday’s game, he had two goals and four assists, with a plus-3 rating, a significant improvement over last season’s minus-12.
"I just try to prepare myself the best I can and get myself ready for every game,’’ he said, when asked about becoming a fixture in the lineup. "And I like where my game's at, and I like where everything's going.
"And yeah, you talk about the consistency level, I think I try to bring that on a daily basis,’’ he said. "I just perform and stay in the best shape possible and try to help this team win. And it's been fortunate for me that I've been able to kind of keep my position.’’