C.J. Smith gives himself the same advice every day: take advantage of opportunities given.
After appearing in the AHL All-Star Game for Rochester as a first-year pro last season, opportunity looms large for Smith at training camp. He's trying to stand out in a crowded field of young forwards who are looking to claim a spot on the NHL roster.
So far, so good.
"I think C.J.'s done a terrific job," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "Every time he's been playing in the games, he's contributing, he's finding ways to get scoring chances and he's got to continue to do that. His development's in a real good spot right now."
Smith put his offensive skills on display in Toronto on Saturday, when he sped away from Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly as he cut across the net for his first goal of the preseason. He's tallied two shots, six shot attempts and three takeaways in two games.
Video: BUF@TOR: Smith scores slick goal to cut deficit
The element of internal competition is nothing new; in many ways it resembles the atmosphere that was established in Rochester last season.
"You've got to come in every day and take advantage of your opportunity when it's given," Smith said. "Just play to your ability and not try to do too much, but obviously you want to do something to just help yourself stand out too.
"You're trying to find a nice line between trying to stand out and not trying to do too much and overcomplicate the game."
Smith led the Amerks with 30 points in his first 34 games last season, which earned him an All-Star nod as a rookie. He seemed positioned to earn a late recall, but an ankle injury in mid-February sidelined him for more than a month.
"It was pretty tough timing with the injury, a little frustrating for me personally," he said. "As for my game, when I got back I just wasn't able to get back to 100 percent so it kind of hurt me at the end of the year. But I was able to recover, and I had a good summer and I really like where I'm at right now."
Smith tweaked his summer routine after his introduction to the grind of a professional season. He never had to play more than 41 games in a season during his collegiate career at UMass-Lowell; the Amerks played 79 games last season between the regular season and playoffs. He incorporated flexibility and mobility training into his workouts to lower the risk of injury.
The rest of the grind, he learned, is mental.
"You've got to be able to learn how to play tired," he said. "You're not going to be there physically for every game, but you've got to mentally push through it. You've got to be able to help the team out … so you just keep it simple, and when you are tired just being able to mentally push through it I think is pretty important."
Smith will play his third preseason game on Tuesday, when the Sabres visit Clinton, N.Y. to play the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL's Kraft Hockeyville USA game. That's one more chance to make an impression as entering the final week of exhibition play.
"I think I've done a pretty good job so far," he said. "I've been able to just come in every day, been able to just push myself and try to get better. Just trying, like I said, pushing the pace and playing fast, playing hard.
"Just taking it one day at a time has kind of been my mindset and whatever happens, happens. Just take advantage of opportunities when they're given."
On to Clinton
The Sabres have three preseason games remaining, beginning with their visit to Clinton on Tuesday. It won't be your ordinary exhibition - when the Sabres played in the Hockeyville USA game in Marquette, Michigan two season ago, they were met with a red carpet and a packed arena for their morning skate.
"We're very excited to be in the game," Housley said. "Just talking to our guys, we certainly want to enjoy it. It's going to be a great atmosphere there, even at the pregame skate. Obviously, we have business to take care of, but I just told the guys to enjoy the moment.
"It's great to be a part of such a big occasion, especially with USA hockey. We're going to try everything in our power to win that game because we want to get back on track, but certainly we're going to enjoy the atmosphere there."
Housley said he'll continue to tweak lines and defensive pairs this week as the regular season nears. The Sabres had two practice sessions at KeyBank Center on Monday, the first of which will resemble the game group against Columbus.
Here's what that group looked like:
53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
92 Alexander Nylander - 10 Patrik Berglund - 21 Kyle Okposo
49 C.J. Smith - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 52 Andrew Oglevie
71 Evan Rodrigues - 65 Daniel O'Regan
Defense: 4 Zach Bogosian, 8 Casey Nelson, 19 Jake McCabe, 26 Rasmus Dahlin, 33 William Borgen, 45 Brendan Guhle
31 Scott Wedgewood
34 Jonas Johansson
Here's how the non-game group lined up:
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 29 Jason Pominville
20 Scott Wilson - 22 Johan Larsson - 95 Justin Bailey
41 Victor Olofsson - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 72 Tage Thompson
51 Kyle Criscuolo - 13 Nicholas Baptiste
Defensemen: 5 Matt Tennyson, 6 Marco Scandella, 24 Lawrence Pilut, 27 Taylor Fedun, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 82 Nathan Beaulieu
40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark
After their game in Clinton, the Sabres will visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night.