The season started with fireworks for Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith. Both piled up healthy offensive statistics, bolting out the gate with a vengeance.
Smith hit the skids.
Then Smith, 32, was injured on Jan. 11. Prior to leaving the lineup, he had just two goals in his previous 30 games. Goalie Tristan Jarry was just one behind.
The middle of the Penguins lineup has struggled to find the offensive punch from earlier in the season, but Smith will get a new chance to make a first impression probably Tuesday when the team hosts the Winnipeg Jets.
“Hopefully, this will just give him an opportunity to come in with a refreshed mind, refreshed level of energy, and a forward-thinking outlook,” said coach Mike Sullivan on Sunday. “He’s a good player. We’re excited to get him back in the lineup.”
Last season, Smith won the Stanley Cup with the Vegas Golden Knights. He was immensely popular in the city as both one of the Misfits from the original team and for his charity work. The VGK was also an immensely tight-knit group, as evidenced on Jan. 20 by Smith sitting on the opposing bench during intermission with Golden Knights winger Jonathan Marchessault to watch Marchessault’s young son play in the intermission mites game.
Things are different in Pittsburgh. Was Sullivan hinting at Smith needing to turn the page from his former home and looking forward to the Penguins’ challenge of making the 2023-24 playoffs?
“I think I try to face the season a game at a time, and that doesn’t change for me,” Smith said. “So, a long break in between games — my overall outlook on how the season progresses — it hasn’t changed (while) watching games, being out for a while.”
In addition to his offensive statistics being drier than the desert he called home, Smith and Evgeni Malkin have found themselves going in the wrong direction on the ice.
With Smith, the Penguins’ second line has started just 33 of 241 shifts in the defensive zone but has only 52% of the shot attempts.
It’s been an adjustment for the list of Penguins’ newbies, including Erik Karlsson and Ryan Graves, but Smith demurred when PHN asked if he picked up anything watching from above, though he’s not wrong that things look much easier on TV.
“Everything looks easier on TV. Like when you’re on the ice and doing everything on ice level, everything’s a lot faster. And just what you see from the stands or the TV, it looks like there’s space everywhere, and I’ve played long enough to know that’s not the case,” Smith said. “All the small things that you can pick up, maybe (it’s that you) have a little bit more time than you think. Overall, it’s tough to reproduce the game by just watching.”
Penguins Power Play
Smith was again a full participant in practice Monday. In his return to play, likely Tuesday, Smith appeared to be ticketed for the reconfigured top power-play unit with Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust.
Much has been written about the Penguins’ power play. Cutting through months of analysis, it has stunk, and not just a little bit, but a lot.
There were flickers of hope with the reconfigured power play in the final game before the bye and All-Star break when the Penguins fought through their own sluggishness to beat the Montreal Canadiens in overtime, 4-3.
Power play unit No. 1, of which Smith will now be a part, had good chances but didn’t score. Sullivan chose to swap Rickard Rakell for Smith on the top power.
“He’s a good player. He has good instincts,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “We tried to put two groups together that we think we can put players in positions where they can play to their strengths, and give both groups an opportunity to be successful … Reilly is a guy that I think is pretty good on that flank and makes good decisions. He has a really good shot. And I think he understands our position pretty well.”
The power play, like Smith’s game log, has too many zeros in the goal column, but Sullivan is hoping the refresh will put an end to the goose eggs for both.
Perhaps a little success will focus both, too. The Penguins certainly need it.