Devante Smith-Pelly has seemingly become something akin to a cult hero in these parts. Overachieving during a playoff run and helping deliver the Washington Capitals’ first Stanley Cup will do that sort of thing.
Throw in his community work and his turning down more lucrative offers to remain in Washington last offseason, and it’s easy for the locals to embrace a guy who primarily plays a simple, blue-collar game.
Smith-Pelly made a triumphant return to Washington Saturday after a two-month exodus to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears. With an open roster spot and the need for more physicality in their first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Capitals called on Smith-Pelly to fill the void.
Given the reception Smith-Pelly received both at the team’s morning skate in Arlington and throughout the Capitals’ Game 5 win over Carolina, you’d never know this was a player who was sent to the minors in February because he wasn’t producing.
Much of the season was a struggle for the fourth-line winger, who reported to training camp out of shape and was in the midst of a 30-game goalless drought at the time of his demotion. Thirty other NHL teams could have claimed him off waivers for nothing. All 30 teams passed.
Yet there was Smith-Pelly Saturday night, back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, receiving a hero’s welcome from the sellout crowd at Capital One Arena. With chants of ‘D-S-P!’ filling the building from the moment he stepped onto the ice, Smith-Pelly was engaged from the get-go. He capped off his first shift with a punishing hit on Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter. A standing ovation soon followed.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said after the Capitals’ 6-0 win. “I think all I was doing was going down the lane, just cutting off the forecheck and they started chanting. It’s a nice feeling, and I’m glad to be back.”
The Capitals are glad to have him back.
Although the circumstances were not ideal — T.J. Oshie’s long-term injury created the roster opening — there was no available player who could better provide what the Capitals needed.
While fans may clamor for the offensive heroics Smith-Pelly provided last spring (he scored seven goals last postseason, including three tallies in the Stanley Cup Final), the Capitals’ realistic expectations are far more modest.
“I don’t think we’ve been as physical on our forecheck as we could have hoped after four games of evaluating,” head coach Todd Reirden said before Game 5. “Some of it is that we’re not getting in enough to forecheck and when we are, we haven’t been as physical as maybe we have been in past series. This is an impact that he can have.”
That impact was felt early and often from Smith-Pelly who ranked third among Capitals forwards with five hits in 10:43 of ice time.
“I felt great,” he said. “It’d be hard not to have the adrenaline coming back and playing my first game. I thought everyone did a good job on the forecheck and making their D turn and making it hard for them to get (going) on breakouts. Got to keep doing that if we’re going to be successful.”
Smith-Pelly played primarily with Nic Dowd and Chandler Stephenson and the fourth line also created offensively with Dowd eventually cashing in on a third-period penalty shot. Dowd was hooked from behind by Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton after Smith-Pelly had sprung him on a partial breakaway with a nifty feed in transition.
“I think we drew a lot from Devo being here,” Dowd said. “His first couple of shifts, he got the crowd into it. Guys are just excited. It kind of brings a different buzz when you add a new element like that, and our crowd was behind us.”
Maybe it was due to Smith-Pelly’s return or maybe it was just the urgency of the situation after dropping two straight in Carolina, but the Capitals’ authoritative Game 5 win felt like 2018.
A swagger that had perhaps been lacking earlier in this first-round series returned to the defending champs. They imposed their will on the Hurricanes, doling out 48 hits and following their game plan to a tee. The Capitals were especially physical on Carolina’s mobile defensemen.
“They have a lot of skilled D-men,” Smith-Pelly said. “No matter who you are, when you have to keep going back over and over and you’re getting hit, to break the puck out, I mean, it takes a toll. You saw that in the second and third period. Those guys are playing big minutes and we’re making it hard on them.”
The Capitals have frequently spoken of making physical investments within a given series. Lay the groundwork in the first few games of the series and reap the benefits as the series goes deeper against a potentially fatigued and battered bunch.
While the Capitals were not nearly as physical as they would have liked earlier in the series, they made up for it, and then some, in Game 5. The short-handed Hurricanes, who are already playing without injured forwards Andrei Svechnikov, Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook, looked like a team running out of gas Saturday. The Capitals, meanwhile, may just be revving up the engine.
“You don’t know the breaking point for any opposition,” Reirden told reporters Sunday, “but this was a big part of our success last year; that we needed to invest and force the opposition to play a difficult game. Eventually, if you do it for long enough and you believe in the rest of your systems enough, you will break them and that will allow you to get the results you need.”
Catch Game 6 between the Capitals and Hurricanes Monday night at 7 p.m. ET on 1500AM and along the Capitals Radio Network.