DETROIT – It’s a familiar scenario for Brendan Smith – sit the first two games of the playoffs before drawing into the lineup in Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena.
In desperate need of a defensive lift – the Red Wings trail the best-of-seven series 0-2 – Smith will play for the first time in this series when the Eastern Conference first-round playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning shifts to Detroit tonight.
The 27-year-old Smith and Mike Green, as they were throughout much of the regular season, will be paired as defensive partners.
“Anytime you can get back in the lineup it’s exciting,” Smith said.
Smith was a healthy scratch during the most critical time of the Red Wings’ season, missing the past nine games, including the final seven in the regular season as Detroit battled for a playoff berth for the 25th consecutive time. He last played in a 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh on March 26.
“The one thing I’ve said repeatedly is Brendan wasn’t out because he was playing bad, Brendan was out because we have seven good defensemen and I have to choose six,” Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “At this point, after being down 0-2, I thought potentially he could give us a little spark.”
Smith sat out the first two games of last spring’s series with the Lightning, appearing first in Game 3 after Detroit earned a series split in Tampa. He had no points with a plus-1 rating while averaging more than 16 minutes of ice time in the last five games of that series.
“I went through it last year,” Smith said. “I thought I responded well by coming in and playing really good hockey. Arguably some of my best hockey was last series, so I think I’m built for the playoffs and that’s the kind of competitive nature I have in myself and I think I’ll do well just by playing my game and trying to make sure I do my job and do it effectively. That’s what I’m looking forward to; to go out there and play.”
Based on Sunday’s morning skate it would appear Smith is in tonight for Kyle Quincey. The other pairings at the morning skate were Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, and Danny DeKeyser and Alexey Marchenko.
Quincey has played 42 games straight since returning Jan. 11 from ankle surgery.
The Lightning’s Triplets line has had a field day against the Red Wings’ defense. Detroit has to find a remedy to stop Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn, who have accounted for seven of eight goals in the series, producing a total of 15 points between them.
Smith knows what’s at skate for him and his teammates.
“Their strength is their speed and their transition,” Smith said, “so if I can help out in that area and make good plays so they don’t get those chances and also maybe close gaps that will for sure help.
“There’s some things that I think we have to eliminate, some of their rushes, and make sure they don’t get odd-man rushes. I think they’ve done well in transition and those are things that we can for sure control. We’ve done it last year. We played these same guys so we can do it. We just have to go out and make sure we execute plays. … You want to make sure you can make those plays and then you frustrate them. They’re playing defense, you’re playing offense and that way you’re not getting scored against. So that’s that whole thing where your best defense is your best offense.”
Some think Smith is in the lineup for his physicality against the Lightning who at times in this series have taken liberties with some of the Wings’ forwards after the whistle. Blashill disputes that claim.
“The one thing I want to be clear on is I’m worried about between the whistles, I’m worried about whistle-to-whistle play and that’s what he brings to the table,” Blashill said. “I’m not worried about his edginess after the whistle.”
Smith’s skating ability gives the Red Wings a dependable puck-moving defenseman against the Lightning’s resilient forecheckers.
“When Brendan is playing his best he’s a really good breakout guy,” Blashill said. “He does a great job transporting the puck up the ice, he joins the play well, he is effective offensively and he manages the puck and manages his game well. So we’re hoping that’s what he brings tonight.”