WASHINGTON – On paper, the addition of Devante Smith-Pelly to the Capitals lineup should not have mattered. A team that was held to one goal in its past two games lost its second leading goal scorer from the regular season in T.J. Oshie to injury. To replace him, the team recalled Smith-Pelly from the AHL who had just four goals and four assists in 54 games this season.
But hockey is not played on paper.
Though he did not record a point in Saturday’s 6-0 Game 5 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, Smith-Pelly’s impact on his line, on his team and on the game was undeniable.
“Good to get Devo back,” Brett Connolly said. “I thought he was very good tonight. It gives our team a little different element when he's forechecking and people are aware when he's on the ice and he did a great job.”
The day started with an ovation from the crowd at MedStar Capitals Iceplex as Smith-Pelly took to the ice for the morning skate. After scoring seven goals in 24 playoff games last season and becoming one of the playoff heroes that helped lead Washington to its first Stanley Cup, Smith-Pelly has become a fan favorite for the Capitals faithful. That excitement carried over into the game.
Smith-Pelly delivered a hit to Carolina forward Nino Niederreiter on his very first shift which brought the crowd at Capital One Arena to its feet in a standing ovation. Chants of “DSP” echoed through the arena in recognition of his return to the team.
“It's a great feeling,” Smith-Pelly said. “I think all I was doing was down the lane, just cutting off the forecheck and they started chanting. It's a nice feeling and I'm glad to be back.”
“I think we drew a lot from Devo being here,” Nic Dowd said. “His first couple shifts, he got the crowd into it. Guys are just excited. It kind of brings a different buzz when you add a new element like that and our crowd was behind us.”
Through the first four games of the series, Washington’s bottom-six on offense had been largely invisible. Lars Eller had the only points among those forwards with a goal—an empty-netter in Game 1—and an assist. But it was not just the offensive production, those lines seemed to have little positive impact on the game at all including physically.
“We've been disappointed with our lack of physical play, even when we had success here in 1 and 2,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “We just felt that we really hadn't imposed our will and played the type of physical brand of hockey that we're capable of."
The addition of Smith-Pelly to the fourth line added a physical presence to that line that had been lacking throughout the series. The entire team came out with more of a physical edge to it and Smith-Pelly had a lot to do with that. He was credited with five hits in the game, the third most among the team’s forwards, despite getting only 10:43 of ice time.
“I felt great,” Smith-Pelly said. “It'd be hard not to have the adrenaline going coming back and playing my first game.”
You could be forgiven for not noticing the fourth line in any of the prior four games in the series, but you certainly noticed it on Saturday.
The physical tone set by the fourth line and the entire Caps team took its toll on Carolina as the Hurricanes seemed to wear down as the game went on. A 1-0 game at the halfway point turned into a 6-0 win by the end. Instead of dumping the puck into offensive zone and forcing his teammates to chase, Warren Foegele made an ill-advised pass to no one in the neutral zone and Alex Ovechkin took in the other direction leading to a Capitals goal. Later in the period, defenseman Dougie Hamilton stopped skating and yielded to Ovechkin as they were in a footrace for the puck along the boards behind the goal line in Carolina’s defensive zone.
“No matter who you are, when you have to keep going back over and over and over and you're getting hit, to break the puck out I mean it takes a toll I think,” Smith-Pelly said. “You saw that second and third period. Those guys are playing big minutes and we're making it hard on them.”
But Smith-Pelly’s impact was not just felt in the game, it was felt long before.
Losing a player like Oshie to injury is about so much more than just losing a talented player. Oshie was called a “heart-and-soul guy” in the wake of suffering a brutal looking upper-body injury in Game 4. Not only is he one of the leaders of the team, but his boundless energy is contagious. There was never a worry if he would be able to get up for a game and he always did his best to get his teammates up for it as well, whether that meant being a personality within the locker room, playing with 100-percent effort, laying a big hit or just pumping up the team with a goofy warm-up tradition.
Losing Oshie from the locker room may be harder to quantify than losing him on the ice, but it may actually be the more damaging loss.
Bringing in a player as well-liked as Smith-Pelly, however, was exactly what the team needed.
“I think when you go through the situation like we went through the last couple days in terms of losing one of our top players and leaders, you use that as an opportunity that someone's got to take advantage of,” Reirden said. “From what Devante's gone through this year, very well-liked player in our locker room. It was a nice, I'd say distraction from us losing a top, top player, top leader on our team. Everyone was excited about getting him back into the mix. We felt like not just having him around as a person, but the style of game that he was going to play was something we've been lacking in the series and that's the physicality and being able to have puck possession in the offensive zone.”
Smith-Pelly said after the game that he tried not to think about a possible return while he was in Hershey and instead tried to focus just on having an impact for the Bears. While he might not have wanted to think about it, however, it was clear he was ready for the call. Once it came, he certainly made the most of it on Saturday.
Said Reirden, “Definitely he gave us a boost both with how his game was on the ice, but also having him back in our locker room.”
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