BOSTON (CBS) - Days after he was a healthy scratch for a shootout loss to the Florida Panthers on March 21, Bruins forward Reilly Smith was lamenting his lack of consistency this season.
He had played every game until that night in Sunrise, but had just 12 goals in 71 games. Worst of all, he wasn't doing anything else to convince coach Claude Julien he belonged in the lineup.
Smith might still be grasping for consistency. There's no telling if he'll give the Bruins anything in the final four games of the regular season or in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But one thing is certain: the Bruins would not have tied Detroit for third place in the Atlantic Division on Thursday night had Smith not finally flaunted his offensive skills in a dramatic comeback victory.
Smith had the primary assist on the Bruins' first two goals, as they rallied from 2-0 down in the third period to defeat the Red Wings 3-2. The Bruins maintained their three-point lead on the Ottawa Senators for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. But they also pulled even with Detroit, which has one game in hand.
Defenseman Zach Trotman's first NHL goal was the game-winner with 2:08 left in regulation, and Tuukka Rask had another superhuman effort with 35 saves. Smith, though, was a huge supporting player in the crucial victory.
It's ironic that in his lineup shuffle Julien started with in Detroit, the coach tried to jump start Smith by putting him back in the role he's been most successful with the Bruins as the right wing with center Patrice Bergeron and left winger Brad Marchand. However, it took a reunion with his linemates from the Bruins' most recent three games (all wins), Loui Eriksson and Carl Soderberg, that got Smith's offensive game in gear.
Smith landed one shot on net in the first period, when the Bruins were outshot 14-7 and mostly sleepwalked their way through a 0-0 first 20 minutes. In the second period, Bergeron suffered a facial injury early and missed the whole stanza. Julien had to shuffle the lines and he sentenced Smith to the offense-free zone on a line with Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell.
Fortunately for Smith, Bergeron returned to start the third period. Julien didn't return to the line combinations that started the game, and that meant Smith was back playing with Eriksson and Soderberg. Eriksson drew a penalty that turned momentum in the Bruins' favor. Smith, who at times had had his power-play shifts taken by Torey Krug in recent weeks, worked a little magic at the left point back late in the man advantage. Smith kept the puck in at the blue line and kept his feet moving until he landed a shot on net from the right hash mark. Soderberg cleaned up the rebound to cut Detroit's lead to 2-1.
A little more than two minutes later, Smith patiently carried the puck down the left wing and waited for Detroit goaltender Petr Mrazek to leave the blue paint and attack. Once Mrazek bit, Smith set up Eriksson for a slam dunk in front of the net that tied it 2-2.
Any number of things could've lit a fire under Smith in the third period. Maybe it was joining with Soderberg and Eriksson again. It could've been the thought of losing a game to his brother Brendan Smith.
Possibly Smith realized that the only Bruins player with a lot of jump through the first two periods was newcomer and possible lineup replacement Brett Connolly, who finished the game with two assists. Connolly showed physicality and a willingness to fire his shot and get his nose dirty, two things the Bruins need more of from Smith, in his Bruins debut. If Smith doesn't sustain his productivity from the Red Wings game over the next week, he might be the one that's scratched in order to keep Connolly in the Boston lineup for the playoffs.
Smith still has just one goal in his past 19 games wrapped around that healthy scratch. He's not going to match the 20 goals he scored last season no matter how much general manager Peter Chiarelli tries to fudge the numbers. And the timing of the two-year extension Chiarelli gave Smith is still baffling.
Regardless, Smith came up huge when the chips were down and helped push the Bruins one step closer to a playoff spot that looked almost out of reach just a week ago. The Bruins have won four in a row. Smith's search for consistency now has a positive spot to start from at the most important time of the year.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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