By Sean Hartnett
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The challenges of adapting to a new system, the demands of a new coach, and adjusting to the tendencies of a fresh set of teammates don't always make for an easy transition. Typically, there's going to be ups and downs.
Since being acquired on Feb. 28, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith has averaged a robust 20:02 minutes per game. For the most part, he's put in solid performances since swapping Detroit's famous winged wheel for the equally historic blue, red and white of the Rangers. But lately, there have been games where he's played below the high standard he set for six seasons in the Motor City.
A great coach gives enough leeway to his players to fight through the short-term struggles they're experiencing. Alain Vigneault could have pinned Smith to the bench when the 6-foot-2 defenseman got off to a turnover-prone start in Sunday's home meeting against the rival Philadelphia Flyers, but that has never been his modus operandi.
Vigneault kept the faith by continuing to send Smith over the boards and the 28-year-old blue liner responded by scoring an incredible backhanded goal to give the Rangers a second period lead. Smith escaped the clutches of Flyers forward Travis Konecny to bury a pinpoint pass from playmaking winger Mats Zuccarello. It looked as if the duo had a decade of experience together rather than a modest total of 16 games. You could see the relief on Smith's face after he recorded his long-awaited first goal as a Ranger.
"Our forwards made some good plays at our own blue line and I was able to beat my man up the ice," Smith said. "Zuccy made a really nice pass to me and then I blacked out, so I'm not really sure what happened after that."
Of course, Smith is joking in the second half of that quote. He had scored a forehand-to-backhand, top shelf beauty. Not a bad way to net your first Blueshirts goal.
As the game wore on, Smith continued to use his legs effectively to join the attack and he made intelligent decisions with the puck on his stick. The Rangers went on to defeat the Flyers, 4-3, to secure top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Garden faithful serenaded the eliminated Flyers with chants of "Season's over, season's over." Smith was voted by the attending media as third star of the game.
"There's no doubt that was a real smart play he did on his goal," Vigneault said. "I do think that he made some good decisions tonight and he made the right call as far as jumping up in that play at that time. There's some good moments and other moments that he can get a little bit better."
"It was a big goal for us," alternate captain Marc Staal added. "It got the momentum rolling. He made a really nice move and a nice play. We need different guys every night to win, especially going to the playoffs."
Smith has recorded one goal and three assists in 16 games with the Rangers. Given his smooth skating and poise puck-handling, it's fair to expect better production than the career-best 19 points he put up during the 2013-14 season.
"We know he has some good offensive skill, as you can clearly see by that goal," alternate captain Dan Girardi said of Smith. "He's good on both ends for us. Obviously, that was a big acquisition for us. He's playing real solid and hard for us right now."
Something that Vigneault has not gotten enough credit for during his four years behind the Rangers' bench is his ability to coax an extra bit of offense from his defensemen.
Ryan McDonagh was deployed as more of a shutdown man under previous head coach John Tortorella. In Vigneault's first season in New York, McDonagh enjoyed a career-high 43 points. Take a closer inspection at the success rookie defenseman Brady Skjei is enjoying. Scouts expected the defensive side of his game to grow more rapidly than his offensive traits, but the 23-year-old has recorded 39 points in 78 games, the most by a Rangers rookie defenseman since Brian Leetch registered 48 in 1988-89.
The way Smith has attacked and picked the right spots to join the rush proves he has offensive potential that can be unearthed. His high-end skating and skill was on display for all to see during three productive years at the University of Wisconsin. During his time in Detroit, his game was molded through a defense-first mindset. Perhaps, Vigneault can unlock Smith's hidden potential at the late blooming age of 28.
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