He lumbered across the zone. The puck squirted into his path. Smith-Pelly then kicked the puck ahead, settling it like a soccer player, and shot it past Fleury as he twisted off-balance to the ice. Fleury lay face down in his crease, defeated. Smith-Pelly screamed and scrambled to his feet, then screamed some more as his teammates pinned him against the glass.
“That’s just DSP,” Capitals rookie defenseman Christian Djoos said roughly an hour later, shrugging as if the acrobatic play was anything resembling normal. “If there is a big goal to score, of course he is going to score it.”
That will be one of the looping replays of the Capitals’ first Stanley Cup victory, the second-to-last goal of a magical season. A goal scored by a fourth-line winger who was not even a lock to make the team coming out of training camp.
Smith-Pelly carved himself into franchise history with seven playoff goals, matching his total from 75 regular season games. He scored in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, each contest the biggest of his career and each a Capitals win. He also tied Alex Ovechkin for most third-period goals this postseason with five, none bigger than the one that knotted the score Thursday and led to a title he’ll always share.
“This is why we play,” Smith-Pelly said on the ice after the game. “Our whole life is for this moment.”
This moment was full of improbability: Smith-Pelly speaking to a ballooning crowd of reporters, two sections of Capitals fans chanting his initials — “D-S-P! D-S-P!” — his family taking video of it all, giddy with excitement, beaming into their iPhone screens.
The 25-year-old has bounced around the NHL for seven seasons and was on the brink of falling out of it this past summer. The New Jersey Devils essentially cut him after an unproductive season. The Capitals signed him to a two-way contract — a league-minimum $650,000 if he played in the NHL, $350,000 if he played in the minors — and he had to fight his way onto the roster.
He earned one of the final spots and worked to become a regular in the lineup. That odyssey led him to the top line for a short stretch before he solidified himself as a bottom-six forward. But his contributions mostly included grinding along the boards, using his body to ram opponents in the neutral zone or bothering opposing forwards with every ounce of his athleticism.
The contributions did not include much scoring. Not until the playoffs. Not until something, somehow, clicked.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. Every game is so important, I don’t know,” Smith-Pelly said when asked to explain his seven playoff goals. “Just trying to do my part, and [the shots] just so happened to be going in for me.”
And the goals just so happened to be coming in massive moments: the sealing goal in Game 3, the final score of a three-goal first period in Game 4, then his falling-down shot in Game 5 that tied the score in the Capitals’ clincher. There are no small goals in the playoffs, but each one off Smith-Pelly’s stick felt extra big for the Capitals, both because of timing and the value of secondary scoring in a Stanley Cup run.
The Capitals got a power-play goal from Ovechkin in the second period of Game 5, but the other three were scored by Smith-Pelly, 22-year-old winger Jakub Vrana and third-line center Lars Eller, who hammered home the game-winner with a little over seven minutes left.
“I think any team that’s won the Stanley Cup, the stars are going to do their thing,” Smith-Pelly said after the win. “It’s going to come down to the bottom six to have an impact, and we knew that the whole playoffs. That’s just what we tried to do.”
“Smith-Pelly did it again, amazing finals. I’m so happy for him,” said Capitals forward Brett Connolly, standing across the ice from Smith-Pelly and smiling at just the mention of his teammate’s name. “He’s had to earn everything he’s got this year, and he was our hero.”
The next few weeks could get complicated for Smith-Pelly, once the celebration ends and the parade passes and reality swoops back in. He is one of about 30 black players in the NHL, and he told a reporter before Game 5 that he would not visit President Trump in the White House if the Capitals win the Stanley Cup. He is also a restricted free agent who can now demand more than the league minimum, and he might not fit into the Capitals’ plans, as the team is tight to the salary cap.
But he will forever be a part of the team’s legacy, and the future did not worry him Thursday night. He stood in the same spot on the ice as crowds of reporters cycled over to him, asking about his goal and his goals and his knack for showing up when the Capitals needed him most. He spoke slowly and softly, as if he were still trying to process whether it was all really happening. He was one of the heroes, undoubtedly, but had trouble explaining how, at the end of another trying year in an endlessly trying career, that status ever came to be.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s amazing,” Smith-Pelly said as he shifted his weight from side to side, his feet still moving beneath him, his skates still digging into the ice. A hero, it seems, can never rest.
Read more Stanley Cup finals coverage:
Game summary: Capitals 4, Golden Knights 3