It’s a dream to play in the NHL—for those kids who join youth hockey, who watched and idolized the feats of Gretzky and Lemeiux, who worked their way up through club teams to high school. Some made it through to junior leagues and the college level. Even fewer make it to play professionally.
But to score a goal in a critical Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, in front of his parents who were in attendance? Well, that’s just something former Wisconsin Badgers standout Craig Smith said was “special.”
“I kind of had a blind spot but I knew [defenseman Ron] Hainsey was behind me, I didn’t know what kind of jump he had but I could see [left wing Chris] Kunitz,” Smith said on Tuesday of his early third period goal, “and I just tried to get away from him. But when you’re tight in like that and you got guys that—as I know Hainsey, he got close to me with his stick because he’s got a 10-foot stick basically—but you’re only going to have maybe a foot or foot-and-a-half to make your move left or right, and it’s going to be quick.
“But when I got down there, I just found a hole and pushed it outside and hit it.”
The breakaway goal essentially put the game out of reach for the Nashville Predators, extending their advantage to three goals in a contest they eventually won 5-1 against Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. On Monday night, Smith then registered an assist in the Predators’ 4-1 victory to tie the series at 2-2.
The organization is now two wins away from its first Stanley Cup, and Smith’s contributions the past two games have made a significant impact in keeping the Final all equal heading into a crucial Game 5 on Thursday in Pittsburgh (7 p.m. CT, NBC).
Smith, a right wing forward in his sixth year with Nashville, has scored 98 career regular-season goals and has 112 assists in 437 games. Before this season, that included three straight years of scoring 20 or more goals. The experience of lighting the lamp of what was his fourth career playoff goal in 27 games, however, was a hint surreal.
“It almost seemed like I could hear the crowd and the place rumblin’, and as soon as it went in, it’s almost like the sound shut off,” Smith recalled. “It was really weird.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It was just the loudest I’ve ever heard a building, but at the same time, it was almost like the sound was gone and everything was shell-shocked almost. It was cool, it was a really neat moment.”
It’s been a welcomed return for Smith, who has played in all four Stanley Cup Final contests against the Penguins but only four games in the three playoff series previous due to a lower-body injury. Nashville has been without the services of center Ryan Johansen—who led the team in assists (47) and tied for the team lead in points (61)—due to a severe thigh injury that turned out to be acute compartment syndrome.
Despite missing the last six games, Johansen still is tied for third on the team in points during the playoffs (13). Regardless, the Predators ousted Anaheim in the Western Conference Finals, and now are facing the defending champion Penguins.
“I think our staff has done a good job of shuffling around our players and kind of making ends meet and having a well-rounded roster,” Smith said. “That being said, we got a lot of guys that didn’t really have as much experience when they first got here, but you can just see they’re young kids--I think [center] Freddie [Gaudreau] and [left winger Pontus] Aberg--they don’t have that much experience, so they got in and got a couple of goals and they’re having fun. It’s great.
“Guys are just jumping in, there’s not so much there’s pressure on picking up the slack, but they want to get in and do well.”
Nashville came into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference but swept No. 1 Chicago in four games, then defeated both the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim in six games apiece the next two series to place themselves in the Final.
Standing in Nashville’s way is Pittsburgh, which won the Stanley Cup last season and boasts the likes of Crosby and another former Wisconsin hockey standout, defenseman Justin Schultz—someone Smith knows all too well from their time in Madison.
“We were actually roommates in college, too, so I know him inside and out, and he knows me inside and out, so he’s a great guy,” Smith said of Schultz, a key member of the Penguins who has scored 11 points in 19 playoff games this season. “We haven’t said too much to each other. I think we’re kind of waiting for the end result, and we’ll just leave it at that. I was pretty excited for him last year that he got a chance to get in and win the Cup, which was cool.”
A lot has been made about the connection the organization has with its seemingly rabid fan base. Among the “Smashville” fans include Tennessee Titans offensive linemen—who guzzled beers while holding catfish, and heck, even WWE superstars Rusev and Lana rile up the crowds inside Bridgestone Arena.
Smith credited the Predators’ staff for marketing the team well and also extending their outreach to the community. The former Badger “can’t say enough good things” about those wearing the gold and navy colors around town, and even beyond the city limits.
“It’s such a positive, upbeat town and a good thing to be a part of. It seems like everybody not only from Nashville, but other states, are coming here and they want to be part of it and [have] a little taste. It’s inspiring. It’s really cool how everybody’s taken to it.”
That includes country music artists who come to games, and some like Dierks Bentley, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood have sung the national anthem before Predators’ home games during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Underwood, of course, is married to Nashville’s captain, Mike Fisher.
“It’s kind of a crazy mix,” Smith said. “Usually it’s the athletes--we want to be on the stage singing. Maybe it’s flipped around for them and they want to get on the ice. It’s a cool vibe.”
Aside from Smith’s Madison connections as both a native and former Badger, his home state also boasts Nashville’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 18 former Admirals are currently on the Predators’ playoff roster. Smith admitted there is a special, similar feel between the atmospheres at Badgers and Predators games.
“You know, when you go to a Wisconsin game, you know all the chants are always going throughout the game and the clown music when the other team comes out on the ice.,” Smith said. “You know what you’re going to expect, and it’s always amped up with the crowd and the student section. It’s kind of got that feel. We got our chants going, and it just seems like everybody’s into it like that. Everybody’s at the edge of their seats, and they want their team to do well.”
Prior to his arrival in Nashville, Smith sharpened his skill set at Wisconsin for two seasons, earning Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) All-Rookie Team honors during in 2009-10 after registering 33 points. He led the team in goals (19) and was second on the team in points (43) the next year—trailing only Schultz in the latter category.
His time as a Badger, which included that 2009-10 squad that were runner-ups for the NCAA Division 1 men’s championship, prepared him for the next level.
“[Assistant coaches] Mark Osiecki, Kevin Patrick and definitely [former head coach] Mike Eaves is a great combo when I was there my first season,” Smith said. “They were great people, and they’re great hockey minds. Just the development that we went through with practice, and especially the great trainer with Jim Snider. It was a one-two punch with the staff and the training staff is just incredible.”
Originally drafted by Nashville in the fourth round (98th overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft, Smith would be the 15th former UW player to have his name etched into history on that cup if they upend Schultz and the Penguins in the next week.
The “what ifs” of hoisting up Lord Stanley’s Cup aren’t in Smith’s frame of mind, however—he’s just taking it 60 minutes at a time.
“For right now, we’ll just set that aside and focus on the next one and we’ll go from there.”