|Gritty forward Zack Smith spent most of the season in the AHL but made the most of his time there, earning himself a promotion to the big club in Ottawa for the Stanley Cup playoffs (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
Call it more than just a small taste of what Zack Smith
hopes is still to come.
Rather, the Ottawa Senators forward prospect looks upon his Stanley Cup playoff debut this season as a major springboard toward the next big step in his burgeoning National Hockey League career.
"It was a good experience," said the 22-year-old native of Maple Creek, Sask. "I'd say I got my foot in the door in terms of playing more games and having the opportunity to play some more minutes, too.
"With injuries, there is opportunity and (now) they know I can play at this level. The biggest part of it is the playoffs and I think I played pretty well. It was good for me and I think they think the same, too."
Smith, who suited up for all six games during the Senators' first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, certainly validated the organization's decision to bring him into the mix for the post-season after injuries felled key forwards Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek
"He proved to all the staff that when he came up ... the way he plays, he's a hard guy to play against," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of player development and hockey administration. "He's not fazed by the pressure and I think it was an organizational decision, once we got into the playoffs, that he would be one of those guys that would be in the lineup and was going to play a pretty good role.
"It's a testament to his mental makeup, his toughness, his grittiness and the fact that he can adjust his game."
Smith toiled for most of the season with the Binghamton Senators in the American Hockey League, where he totalled 14 goals, 27 assists and 100 penalty minutes in 68 games. He saw 15 games worth of action in Ottawa during the regular season and produced his first two NHL goals. The first one ignited the Senators to a key 4-2 road victory against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 16.
"In Binghamton, (Smith) had a number of roles," said Lee. "He played big ice-time minutes and that was the best thing for him, because that's a high level to play at, in the American league. He went through, like every young player does, some peaks and valleys and he levelled out his game. He was strong at the end of the year.
"I'd say I got my foot in the door in terms of playing more games and having the opportunity to play some more minutes, too ... With injuries, there is opportunity and (now) they know I can play at this level. The biggest part of it is the playoffs and I think I played pretty well. It was good for me and I think they think the same, too." - Zack Smith
"When he came up (in the playoffs), he was very impressive. For a two-year development cycle that he's gone through, it's a testament to the effort he's put into it."
Given the way this season started out, Smith isn't likely to rest on his laurels. He came into training camp touted as someone with a real shot to earn full-time employment in Ottawa but instead, it was fellow rookie Peter Regin
who played his way onto the roster.
"I was hoping to make the team out of camp, but I didn't have a very strong outing to start with," said Smith, the Senators' third-round pick (79th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. "That was pretty disappointing. But I went to Binghamton for most of the year, I played well down there and it gave me an opportunity to get called back up."
Now an even bigger one awaits him come September and Smith knows "this will be a big summer for me" in terms of training and preparation. But his performance on the playoff stage left a definite impression that won't soon be forgotten by the decision makers in Ottawa.
"I think it's huge," Lee said of what Smith gained from his presence in the post-season. "He's a guy that's definitely accelerated his progress to the point that he will push for a spot next year on this team, and deservedly so."Sea Dogs soar behind Senators prospect
Thanks to a huge offensive outburst by Senators prospect Mike Hoffman
, the Saint John Sea Dogs dumped the Moncton Wildcats 6-4 on Tuesday night to get back into their Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship series.
Hoffman, a fifth-round selection (130th overall) by the Senators in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, had two goals and two assists for the Sea Dogs in the game played at Harbour Station in Saint John. The Wildcats still lead the best-of-seven final 2-1, with Game 4 slated to be played on Friday night at Moncton Coliseum.