NHL

Reilly Smith delivers on promise as Panthers' top scorers struggle

When the Florida Panthers’ top forward line of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr combined for zero points in their playoff opener against the New York Islanders, it was Reilly Smith who took charge of the offence, and he hasn't stopped.

Druce Award candidate leads NHL in playoff scoring

Panthers right-winger Reilly Smith, right, celebrates with Jussi Jokinen scoring his first goal of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs in a 5-4 loss to the visiting New York Islanders. Smith took charge of the offence that night with two goals, three points and a game-high eight shots, and hasn't stopped. The 25-year-old added a goal and two points in Game 2 and three points in Sunday’s 4-3 overtime loss to move atop the playoff scoring race with four goals and eight points, both league highs. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)

Looking like an unlikely candidate to carry his team, Reilly Smith geared up for his second Stanley Cup post-season with two goals in his final 14 regular-season games.

But when the Florida Panthers' top forward line of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr combined for zero points and a minus-5 rating in their playoff opener against the New York Islanders, it was Smith that took charge of the offence with two goals, three points and a game-high eight shots.

The 25-year-old, coming off a career-best 25-goal regular season, hasn't stopped, adding a goal and two points in Game 2 and three points in Sunday's 4-3 overtime loss to move atop the playoff scoring race with four goals and eight points, both league highs. The aforementioned trio, on the other hand, has combined for four points and a minus-7 rating but has had its chances with 44 shots.

It's early, but Smith is a candidate for the unofficial John Druce Award, which fans like to assign to a lightly regarded player who collects the most points for his team in the playoffs while taking over the scoring as star teammates are hurt or slumping. The Toronto-born Smith, who was sixth in Panthers' scoring with 50 points during the regular campaign, has a four-point lead on linemate Nick Bjugstad and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov.

Druce was a fourth-line defensive forward for the Washington Capitals in the 1990 playoffs. After an eight-goal regular season, he stepped up when top scorer Dino Ciccarelli was sidelined with a knee injury and posted 14 goals in 15 games to lead the Capitals in points with 17. Druce went on to score only three goals in his next 38 playoff games.

Such a drastic drop in production isn't expected of Smith, a versatile and effective second-line right-winger who was a solid contributor on the power play this season.

Playing for his third team in as many seasons, he has found a good fit in Florida. Smith's four playoff goals match his output with the Boston Bruins during the 2014 post-season when he had five points in 12 contests but no multi-point performances.

Smith was a prospect in the Stars' organization when he was included in a seven-player trade in July 2013 that saw Boston trade centre Tyler Seguin to Dallas. After Smith scored 20 goals and 51 points in his first full NHL season in 2013-14 with the Bruins, he managed only 13 goals and 40 points the next season and found himself Florida-bound last July 1 as part of a deal for fellow forward Jimmy Hayes.

Hayes, who had a career-high 19 goals and 35 points for the Panthers last season, scored 13 and 29 with a minus-12 rating for the Bruins this year, so give Florida general manager Dale Tallon, the architect behind the Chicago Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team, the decided edge in that trade.

Smith appears headed for an extended stay with the Atlantic Division-champion Panthers along with core forwards Barkov, Bjugstad, Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck, plus defenceman Aaron Ekblad, all 22 or younger.

"He played good in Boston and you knew he was going to be a good player when he was there," said Islanders defenceman Johnny Boychuk of Smith in an interview with the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant admitted not knowing much about Smith before the team acquired him from Boston but has seen him develop into a reliable second-line player that has been added to the penalty-killing rotation in Florida.

Late in the regular season, Gallant named Smith an assistant captain while several veteran alternates were out of the lineup with injuries, and continues to lean on the player, who is second to Barkov in average ice time this post-season among Panthers forwards at 21 minutes 18 seconds, nearly three minutes more than he played in the regular season (18:37).

"You know what you are getting with him," an Eastern Conference GM told ESPN.com in March. "A guy that competes every night and you can count on him for 20 goals."

Some might argue Smith is delivering much more in these playoffs.

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