SUNRISE — Life on the Lightning taxi squad is tough because the players on it sometimes feel so close to the NHL but also so far away.
They practice and work out with the team every day, but they sit, wait and stay ready in case the team needs a day-of-game emergency substitute as part of the new setup this season to deal with coronavirus situations.
So every game-day morning, forward Gemel Smith had been preparing himself mentally for his first NHL game since October 2019. Ultimately, that opportunity was going to come, especially given the speed, forechecking ability and on-ice vision Smith showed in training camp and had been showing in practice.
And with forwards Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli out for Saturday night’s game against the Panthers, the Lightning activated Smith from the taxi squad and put him on the fourth line.
Smith not only held his own, but he provided the Lightning with a spark, setting up two key goals with precision passes in a 6-1 win at the BB&T Center.
“You need that,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You need the depth guys, and you let these guys know their role going in: You never know whether it’s going to be Game 1 or Game 2 or Game 40 that you’re going to get in. But that’s about being a pro and making sure that you’re prepared and you’re ready in case you’re going to get the call like (Smith) did. … He did well, and it shows on him and his character.”
Before Saturday, Smith hadn’t played a pro game of any kind since March 11, 2020, with AHL Syracuse. He was a member of the Lightning’s training camp for the restart of last season after the coronavirus shutdown March 12, and though he didn’t make the playoff roster, he still used the time to build on a career-high 22-goal season with the Crunch. He hadn’t played in a NHL game since the third game of last year’s regular season, on Oct. 6, 2019.
“I’ve kind of been in this position before, and I know how easy it is to kind of just get down on yourself (when) you’re not playing,” Smith, 26, said. “I just tried to stay positive. I’m working a lot with the coaches; the guys are keeping me involved in a lot of things. So it’s really easy to go in there knowing that the guys have trust in me and the coaches have trust in you, and it just kind of made everything easier for me.”
On Saturday, Smith set up the first of two Tyler Johnson goals with 7:02 left in the second period. He beat former Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe for the puck against the wall on the forecheck, skated out to the space toward the end line and sent a flip pass through traffic to Johnson in the right circle, where Johnson beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“(Smith is) a skilled guy,” Johnson said. “He’s a big body (listed at 5 feet 10, 203 pounds), and when he has the puck on his stick, he makes things happen. So him coming in and doing as well as he did, it’s awesome to see.”
“I just tried to use my speed out there,” Smith said. “And in my head, I just kept telling myself, ‘Don’t be surprised. Don’t be surprised.’ I obviously knew, watching the game that (the Panthers) were a high-flying team. I just knew I’ve got to do what I do best, and that’s skate, try to outskate guys, try to put pressure on guys. So in my head, it would just (say), ‘Move my feet, move my feet,’ and everything else would come later.”
After Florida scored its goal midway through the third period, Smith used his speed again to set up a Lightning goal. The Panthers lost the puck along the wall in their offensive zone, and forward Mathieu Joseph chipped it into the neutral zone. Forward Alex Volkov chipped it ahead to Smith, who used his speed to lead a breakaway from the left circle, then feed Volkov across the slot for a one-timer for his first NHL goal with 9:02 left in the game and a 5-1 lead.
“I think it was just a matter of time for him to jump in the lineup like that and have an impact on our team,” said Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph, who played with Smith on the fourth line Saturday. “He’s been really good in practices, and I played with him last year in Syracuse, and he’s a great player.
“He’s got great vision. He’s great at protecting the puck, great hands, and he’s got great offensive instincts. He’s definitely a fun player to play with, and I thought he had an unreal game (Saturday) after not playing in almost a year, and he was definitely a big reason we had success (Saturday).”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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