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Smith-Pelly enjoying ride through Stanley Cup Final with Capitals

Forward goes from unwanted to playoff hero on verge of championship

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Blood dripped slowly from a cut on Devante Smith-Pelly's left cheek, falling onto the Washington Capitals forward's left arm while he sat in his locker stall Monday talking about the wild ride his career has been in the past year.

Smith-Pelly didn't seem to notice the red droplets on his arm and laughed off the cut, caused by an errant shot from Andre Burakovsky during the morning skate, as a flesh wound.

"I'll survive," he said.

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

A little blood wasn't going to spoil the fun for Smith-Pelly, who has gone from unwanted to Stanley Cup Final hero in less than 12 months. His goal with 21 seconds remaining in the first period turned out to be the winner in the Capitals' 6-2 victory against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4 on Monday.

The Capitals lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 and can win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 43-season history with a victory in Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

The 25-year-old couldn't have predicted any of this.

"It's been a roller coaster the whole year," he said. "I'm having a great time. Everything's worked out very well and if we end up winning that would be the cherry on top."

Video: VGK@WSH, Gm4: Smith-Pelly goes top shelf on Fleury

A year ago, Smith-Pelly was coming off a disappointing season with the New Jersey Devils. Plagued by a lingering knee injury that eventually required surgery, he was in and out of the lineup and finished with nine points (four goals, five assists) in 53 games.

After the Golden Knights passed on selecting Smith-Pelly in the NHL Expansion Draft, the Devils bought out the final season of his contract June 30, making him an unrestricted free agent. Up against the salary cap and looking for inexpensive players with potential, the Capitals signed him to a one-year, two-way contract July 3 that included the NHL minimum salary of $650,000.

Washington had some luck in 2016-17 reviving the career of forward Brett Connolly, the No. 6 pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2010 NHL Draft, and hoped for a similar outcome with Smith-Pelly, an Anaheim Ducks second-round pick (No. 42) in that same draft. On his fourth team in his seven NHL seasons (Ducks, Montreal Canadiens, Devils, Capitals), Smith-Pelly was looking for stability and a chance to prove himself.

He had some hurdles to clear to make the team in training camp, including winning over coach Barry Trotz.

Brutally honest, Trotz admitted he initially wasn't a big fan of the Capitals signing Smith-Pelly.

"I didn't take that as he didn't think I was good or anything," Smith-Pelly said. "When you're in the situation I was in, you have to win over the coaches and management regardless of if the coaches liked you before or not."

Trotz met with Smith-Pelly before the season and laid out his expectations They also talked about him developing his "brand."

Video: The Capitals win Game 4 and take a 3-1 series lead

The 6-foot, 223-pound Scarborough, Ontario native bounced around the lineup on previous teams, including time on the first line. He's also done that with the Capitals, but for the most part he's played on the fourth line and killed penalties.

Whatever Smith-Pelly's role, Trotz made it clear he was looking for consistency in his effort.

"I asked him to make sure his game fits with who we are," Trotz said. "You can still build your brand. We'll still build your player. We'll still build you confidence-wise, and I think there's a trust with a player."

Smith-Pelly appreciated the honesty.

"I think communication is key," he said. "In places I played before, you'd play one night and you may think, 'Oh, I played pretty well.' And then the next game you're not playing and then you are kind of wondering why. As soon as I came here, every time my game slipped or something happened, Barry pulled me aside and talked to me and just let me know, 'Hey, you need to do this or you need to do that.' And I just go out there and do it."

Smith-Pelly didn't make headlines in the regular season. His 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 75 games ranked 13th among the Capitals forwards.

But he earned Trotz's trust by doing what he was asked -- using his speed to get in the forecheck and create turnovers, playing physical, blocking shots, winning battles and clearing pucks on the penalty kill. Those elements become more valuable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Smith-Pelly has also increased his production with seven points (six goals, one assist) in the postseason, including a goal in each of the past two games of the Final. Alex Ovechkin (14), Evgeny Kuznetsov (12) and T.J. Oshie (8) are the only Capitals with more goals.

"He's a guy that's played the right way all year," Connolly said. "He's killed penalties, he's blocked shots, he's doing all the little things that he's done all year, and he's chipping in with goals in big moments, too."

Smith-Pelly has a history of upping his game in the playoffs. He scored five goals in 12 games for Anaheim in 2013-14, and has 15 points (12 goals, three assists) in 47 NHL postseason games.

He demonstrated his foot and hand skill Monday by kicking a Matt Niskanen pass from his left skate to his stick before lifting the puck over goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals a 3-0 lead.

"That puck came right to me," he said. "Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it just bounces your way. So hopefully it can continue to bounce my way and our way."

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