WASHINGTON — Why does Devante Smith-Pelly play some of his best hockey in the playoffs? If you ask him, there’s nothing different; it’s just that the spotlight is bigger.
“The things that make my game successful are magnified at this time of year. All season I try and play physical, try and block shots and do those kind of things,” he said. “Obviously, this time of year it matters a whole lot more. It’s the most fun time to play. This is what you dream of. This is the Stanley Cup Playoffs and making it to the Final and scoring that goal in the big game — I think I just really enjoy the big stage in games that matter and games that are fun.”
Smith-Pelly has scored a couple of big goals for the Washington Capitals during their run to the Cup Final, like the insurance tally in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final that forced a Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. His most recent one, his fifth of the playoffs, was during Game 3 Saturday night that served as the dagger to the Vegas Golden Knights’ comeback hopes in the third period.
This isn’t the first time he’s been a big scorer beyond the regular season. As a member of the Anaheim Ducks four years ago, he scored five times during the 2014 playoffs. He has 40 career regular season goals in 341 games. Through Game 3, he now has 11 goals in 46 career playoff games.
“I love playing in the playoffs. It’s fun,” he said. “It just so happens maybe I’m scoring goals at the right time. I don’t know. I love playing in the playoffs. That’s really the only way I can kind of explain it.”
Last June 30 Smith-Pelly was informed his time with the New Jersey Devils was over. He would be waived for buyout purposes and the first few days of free agency would be spent finding a fourth NHL team in four seasons. He would sign a one-year deal with the Capitals in early July and have to prove himself to make the team out of training camp. Initially, head coach Barry Trotz had low expectations about the move.
“I wasn’t sure on him, to be honest with you,” Trotz said in January via the Washington Post. “Just because of not seeing him enough and not knowing him, I knew there was something there, but to be honest with you, I wasn’t a big fan.”
After arriving in D.C., Smith-Pelly and Trotz sat down for a conversation where the head coach gave his opinion of the forward’s game from an outsider’s perspective. Trotz obviously wanted the signing to work and the two discussed areas of Smith-Pelly’s game that were strong and what areas could be built upon.
That was the start of Smith-Pelly finally feeling at ease. As a player who thrives with confidence, with Trotz being forgiving about certain mistakes, the 25-year-old forward’s comfort level with his new environment continued to grow.
“Roller coaster,” said Smith-Pelly, describing his season. “Starting from the summer and signing here, having to make the team out of camp, it’s been a roller coaster but at the same time I’ve had a lot of fun too.”
One of Smith-Pelly’s strengths is his versatility. He plays a physical game, can block shots, play on the penalty kill and chip in offensively. And when needed, he can move up and down the lineup, as shown when he played along the Capitals’ top line during Tom Wilson’s suspension earlier in the playoffs (even if it didn’t work out that great.)
Smith-Pelly is part of a Capitals’ secondary scoring group whose contributions have helped them to this point: two wins away from the franchise’s first championship.
“His career’s gone up and down a little bit like a lot of guys in both series,” said Capitals forward Brett Connolly. “He’s stepped up huge for us and we’re going to need him to keep doing what he’s been doing for sure.”
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.