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Opportunity, confidence fuelling Smith's growth

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Zack Smith has found a comfort zone on a line with Chris Neil and Kaspars Daugavins, and is also earning extra ice time as a member of the Senators penalty-killing unit (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images).

The humming of the Bingo train, he'll tell you, is anything but a joyful symphony.

No wonder, then, that Zack Smith can't help but smile as he's reminded that his world these days is a veritable song of stability. And that's a far cry from being a hurtin' tune, to be sure.

"It does help a bit to know you're going to be here," said the 23-year-old Smith, who's firmly entrenched himself as the Ottawa Senators' third-line centre. "You don't come off ice after a game or practice and worry about what happened the game before and that you might get sent down."

That shuttle between Ottawa and Binghamton, N.Y. — the home of the Senators' American Hockey League affiliate — was a regular part of life for Smith the last two seasons. But the native of Maple Creek, Sask., seems to have finally found himself a home in the nation's capital, whether it's centring a line between veteran Chris Neil and Kaspars Daugavins, or working alongside Erik Condra on the Senators' penalty-killing unit.

"He works real hard, he brings a physical element to the game and he's a good skater," head coach Paul MacLean said of Smith following Senators practice earlier today at Scotiabank Place. "He's done a good job in the faceoff circle so that his line starts with the puck, instead of having to chase it it and get it back."

And puck control, you should know, is everything in MacLean's scheme of things. Smith will tell you he's never previously felt so comfortable in that area, at least at the National Hockey League level. Though he and Neil, in particular, are counted upon to stir things up physically, Smith has also shown a bit of a scoring touch so far this season, producing seven points (2-5) in 15 games to date.

"It's opportunity with confidence, I think," said veteran Senators centre Jason Spezza. "(Smith) has a great opportunity right now to play a little more and he has confidence from the way he finished last year ... how he played in the American league playoffs.

"His physicality has given him some room and given him an opportunity to use his strength and use his reach. And he's done a great job on the penalty kill, him and Erik. It's just a combination of everything, I guess."

For Smith, it was the B-Sens' Calder Cup playoff run back in the spring — during which he was one of the team's scoring leaders — that provided the right kind of springboard into this season. He also has a ready made comfort level with Daugavins, another key contributor to Binghamton's championship squad.

"I've got a lot more confidence, especially after playing in Binghamton in the playoffs last year," said Smith, a third-round pick (79th overall) by the Senators in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. "I got to play a more offensive role and I've come up here and it feels like the coach has more confidence in me. Our line has created chances 5-on-5, and me and Condra have been able to create chances shorthanded."

Again, though, it comes back to the security Smith now feels in Ottawa, where he's destined to spend a full season for the first time in his still-young career.

"To be successful offensively, you have to take chances," he said. "That's maybe something you're not willing to do as much if you think that if you make a mistake, you're going to get sent down the next day."

Around the boards

Though his captain won't face the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200), MacLean isn't ruling out the possibility of getting Daniel Alfredsson back in the lineup this weekend for the start of a five-game road swing. Alfredsson, who suffered a concussion Oct. 29 in New York, skated again before practice and was slated to take the baseline test today that's he's required to pass before he's cleared for game action. "If he passes the test and hits all the protocols, it would be reasonable to speculate he'd practise with the team (this week) and be ready to play when he says he's ready," said MacLean. "I think he'd give himself a couple of practices before he'd say he's ready to go." ... The Rangers (7-3-3) have won four straight since blowing a three-goal third-period lead 10 days ago in their 4-3 shootout loss to Ottawa.

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