“As far as the goals,” Smith-Pelly said, “I have no idea.”
So much about Smith-Pelly and his place in this Stanley Cup finals defies explanation. It is, without question, difficult to comprehend how a burly forward who scored seven goals during 75 regular season games this year has now recorded six in 23 playoff games. His most recent goal came Monday night as he swooped to the net at the end of a delirious first period in the Washington Capitals’ 6-2 victory in Game 4 against the Vegas Golden Knights, Smith-Pelly’s second goal in two games.
“That puck came right to me,” Smith-Pelly said. “Sometimes it just bounces your way.”
Figuring out his scoring binge, though, may be the simplest slice of Smith-Pelly’s story. How did a 25-year-old whose career faced a crossroads in the fall become a crucial cog for a team one victory away from the Stanley Cup? How could a seven-season journeyman hear his initials chanted in a frenzied arena on the sport’s biggest stage? How, exactly, did Smith-Pelly become one of Washington’s newest sporting darlings?
“I don’t know,” Smith-Pelly said. “It’s been a roller coaster year.”
In training camp, Smith-Pelly joined the fourth team of his career, and fourth in four seasons, available because the New Jersey Devils had bought out his contract and let him walk. The Capitals added him, in large part, because their salary cap situation necessitated cheap signings, and he was as cheap as they came. Back in October, the scene that played out in the second period Monday night would have been unfathomable.
Smith-Pelly was helping kill a penalty, the kind of hard-nosed task he specializes in. He hustled after the puck at center ice, nearly beating Vegas forward Tomas Tatar to the puck. Instead, he checked Tatar into the boards, nearly flipping him into the Capitals’ bench. With the puck momentarily loose, Smith-Pelly hacked it across the ice, effectively ending Vegas’s chance at a power-play goal.
Smith-Pelly climbed over the boards, his shift over. The crowd, raucous to the point of near-derangement, roared its approval.
“D-S-P!” fans chanted. “D-S-P!”
“I heard it a little bit,” Smith-Pelly said, breaking into a smile that revealed two missing teeth. “It’s exciting. It’s fun. I mean, it obviously makes you feel pretty good. I’m trying to focus on the game, but I did hear it.”
How can you explain that? Smith-Pelly debuted at 19 with the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, a recent second-round pick. By last offseason, his career had destabilized. Last season with New Jersey, Smith-Pelly recorded four goals and five assists in 53 games. The Devils essentially cut him.
“I knew coming in, you only get so much chances to stick,” Smith-Pelly said. “I knew that this could be my last one. I took the buyout personally.”
Washington signed Smith-Pelly to a two-way contract that would pay him $650,000 — the league minimum — if he played in the NHL and $300,000 if he played in the minors. Coach Barry Trotz wondered why Smith-Pelly had bounced around and initially viewed him with skepticism.
“In the National Hockey League, as a coach, you want to know what you’re getting all the time,” Trotz said. “In the past, he’s had maybe some consistency issues.”
Smith-Pelly found his place as a fourth-line forward. Though he now occupies a special place in Capitals history, Smith-Pelly had a quiet, if solid, season. He recorded 16 points and became a key piece of their penalty kill.
“He just does everything,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said. “When you can do everything, you can find your niche. He’s been a real important player for us. It’s nice to see him get some credit for all his hard work that sometimes goes unnoticed.”
When the Capitals configured their bottom-six forwards to start the playoffs, there was no guarantee Smith-Pelly would be included. But he had earned Trotz’s turst, and the Capitals coaching staff believed he belonged, partly owing to his pedigree as a player who raised his level in the postseason. In his career, he had scored six playoff goals — including five in 2014 with Anaheim, after scoring just two in the regular season — in 24 playoff games.
Smith-Pelly has found himself in the middle of everything in these playoffs, and not in a way he wanted Monday morning. At the start of the Capitals’ morning skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, teammate Andre Burakovsky blasted a slap shot. As it hissed toward the net, the puck smacked Smith-Pelly in the face.
“A little wake-up call,” Smith-Pelly said.
Smith-Pelly left the practice but returned by the end. Blood trickled down Smith-Pelly’s face as he spoke with reporters after the workout. Trainers had glued a wound just beneath his mouth shut, but he was already joking about what Burakovsky owed him for the wayward shot.
“At least a dinner,” Smith-Pelly said. “The minimum a dinner, at least.”
If the Capitals can finish the Golden Knights, Smith-Pelly may never need to pay for a meal in Washington again. He is the kind of pop-up, postseason hero fans embrace in the moment and never forget in the years to come. In October, they may not have heard of him. Monday night, they chanted his name.