Bruins coach Claude Julien kept trust in the 23-year-old, and that faith has been rewarded in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Smith scored the game-winning goal Saturday, when the Bruins evened their best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Montreal Canadiens with a 5-3 win at TD Garden.
Game 3 is at Bell Centre at Montreal on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), and Smith will start it with three playoff goals.
"I think it's, sometimes the puck is going in the net and sometimes it's not," said Smith, who finished the regular season with 20 goals and 51 points in 82 games. "I just tried to stick with what got me success this year. The puck won't go in the net all the time, but you stick to what got you success and what you do well, then sooner or later you are going to get back to your game and the positives are going to start showing."
After a slow start to the third period, the positives started showing for Boston, even with Montreal forward Thomas Vanek scoring to give the Canadiens a 3-1 lead at 6:30.
Defenseman Dougie Hamilton started the Bruins comeback with a goal from the blue line at 10:56, and Smith was in the thick of the action. He and linemate Brad Marchand were battling in front of Montreal goaltender Carey Price when Hamilton's shot made its way through the traffic.
Smith did some yeoman's work down low, along with Marchand and center Patrice Bergeron, prior to Bergeron's game-tying goal at 14:17. Then came Smith's ultimate display of two-way play.
First he tracked down Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher, who was streaking on the left wing of a 2-on-2. After forcing Gallagher to cough up the puck, Smith bolted back the other way with the Bruins in possession. Defenseman Torey Krug wound up with it down low on the left side and fed it across the slot off Gallagher's stick to Smith low in the right circle.
Smith somehow settled the puck enough to lift a wrist shot past Price with 3:32 remaining for a 4-3 lead.
"There was a huge momentum swing in that third period as soon as we got that first goal and it kind of just built up until that moment," Smith said. "So there was a lot of emotions and a lot of passion going in to that. I was obviously just really happy that it went in to the back of the net because, especially in this series, Price has stood on his head a couple times where we thought we had for-sure goals and he has made big saves."
Smith joined the Bruins last summer as part of the package Boston received from the Dallas Stars in a trade for forward Tyler Seguin. The centerpiece of that package was Loui Eriksson, who was widely expected to be the right wing on the line with Bergeron and Marchand. Eriksson's injury troubles opened that spot for Smith, who thrived there. Playing his first full NHL season, Smith was plus-28 skating against opponents' top lines almost every night.
Even when he was struggling to score, Smith maintained his focus on his two-way game.
"Yeah, I think there is a lot more to my game than just scoring goals," Smith said. "I have learned a lot with playing with [Bergeron]. This year especially, him being such a tremendous two-way forward, you pick up little things. Probably, coming in here a lot of people thought that [scoring] was the only part of my game, and I think playing with [Bergeron] and [Marchand], you know, a lot of leadership and the character has helped my defensive game tremendously this year."
Julien tried different line combinations toward the end of the regular season, including putting Eriksson with Bergeron and Marchand, but the coach went back to Smith to start the postseason. He had one goal and one assist, including a game-winning goal, against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. His fine play continued in the second round with a goal in Boston's 4-3, double-overtime loss in Game 1.
For Smith, it took less than a season to be among Julien's most reliable players.
"He plays like a veteran. And he's very calm in those kind of situations," Julien said. "You don't see him make too many big mistakes because he's a smart hockey player, and some guys have it. It's a knack he's had from the start, and with his experience playing with guys like Bergeron and Marchand. He's just gotten better."
Smith's late-season slump is a now distant memory.
"He's got the right mentality. He wants to get better. He wants to be a difference out there," Bergeron said. "I think even in that [slumping] stretch he was still making the right plays and playing well. I love playing with him; he's always in the right spot making great plays. Right now, he's played some great hockey. He's really fighting, battling, making some right plays, going to the front of the net, making some great back checks, and that's what you need."
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