When the Boston Bruins return from their Olympic break on Feb. 26, they will be counting down their regular-season schedule from 25 games onward. The reality of the season’s impending conclusion will hit quick and hard at that point.
In turn, the approach of the team’s Seventh Player Award presentation will hit even harder. The fairly renowned prize presented by NESN to the player who exceeds expectations the most figures to be doled out with a week or two left in the regular season.
As both the season and the virtual Seventh Player derby swing into the homestretch, the latter is looking like a two-party race. Fan voters have a pair of worthy first-year faces to choose from in goaltender Chad Johnson and winger Reilly Smith.
For most of 2013-14, including the present day, Smith has held the upper hand by virtue of his hard-earned rise to the top six and extended stay there. In addition, his assimilation into Boston's lineup smoothed out sooner.
Granted, Johnson does have time to catch up, which he has already been doing by turning in irreproachable performances as his workload increases.
In a Feb. 3 write-up, Springfield Republican beat reporter Amanda Bruno was apt to look back on the wraparound bane that plagued Johnson in the autumn. Those were the defining setbacks in a 4-2 loss to the basement-dwelling Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 19, among other subpar outings.
That losing decision snapped a personal five-game winning streak. The reason the one falter jutted over that string of multiple victories was chiefly the opponents on Johnson’s game log.
Still, the offseason free agency import had enough of the coaching staff’s trust to spell Tuukka Rask on a handful of occasions each month. Since mid-January, he has emboldened that confidence with another slew of five straight triumphant decisions.
More to the point, one of those decisions saw him win a five-round staring contest against Los Angeles stalwart and U.S. Olympic netminder Jonathan Quick. Johnson repelled 21 out of 23 shots en route to a 3-2 win over the Kings on Jan. 20.
He has since followed up by turning in better performances against the Islanders, Oilers and Senators than he had in previous meetings with those teams. He evened his record against both the Isles and Sens to 1-1-0 and charged up his first shutout as a Bruin at Edmonton’s expense, wraparound or no wraparound.
Having raised his bar with the L.A. game and having adopted more frequency and consistency in his appearances, Johnson can by all means cement himself as a worthy Seventh Player candidate. However, he can only rise to the position of the supreme Seventh Player candidate if Smith falters and leaves a glaring blemish on his transcript.
One can argue that Johnson was not supposed to boast an 11-3-0 record, coupled with a 2.13 goals-against average and .924 save percentage at this point. Those latter two numbers nearly rival Rask’s output of a 2.11 GAA and .928 save percentage.
But Smith was definitely not supposed to be second on the team with 18 goals and third among the Bruins with 42 points at the 57-game mark. Sure enough, though, he is only one tally below Brad Marchand and Jarome Iginla, respectively, under those two headings.
This has come despite entering the 2013-14 campaign as the supposed secondary piece in Boston’s trade last July with Dallas. At the time of the deal, seven-year NHL veteran Loui Eriksson was essentially the replacement for dynamic winger Tyler Seguin.
Smith, who joined Eriksson and two minor-league mainstays in coming from the Stars organization, had but 40 games of NHL experience at the time. He had just turned 22 and split his first full professional season between Dallas and the AHL after signing out of Miami University.
Yet 57 games later, he has multiplied his career goal total by seven, going from three with the Stars to 21 with all employers. His 24 assists through 57 appearances with the Bruins are quadruple the six he mustered in 37 twirls with Dallas last season.
Smith started sculpting those stats with little hesitation, seizing every opportunity he had to fill in on an upper echelon of the depth chart. Whether it was in the wake of Marchand’s third-line reassignment in October or one of Eriksson’s protracted injury stints, he has plugged the void.
In between, he momentarily helped to forge an effective depth troika, opposite Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg.
Regardless of who he has worked with or how many shifts he has taken, Smith has produced with just about as much consistency as any Boston striker. His worst cold spells have consisted of three scoreless skids lasting three games apiece and a pair of four-game pointless streaks.
One could counter against Smith’s Seventh Player case by noting the fact that he stepped up to the top six and delivered as early as the second full week of the season. That may be taken as an indication that the team’s expectations of Smith were higher than met the eye at the start.
Conversely, Johnson came into this season with only 10 NHL appearances in four seasons on his transcript. The coaching staff’s initial trust in him had only translated to one appearance in 12 games in October. Therefore, his expectations were not as high as Smith’s from the outset.
Some may also point to an early dearth of goal production. Smith may be second on the team under that heading now, but he only tallied one goal in his first 14 appearances and two in his first 19. He has since brooked two other droughts lasting seven (Jan. 7-20) and five games (Jan. 30-Feb. 8), respectively.
However, it is not very hard to counter those counterarguments. While his long-term goal distribution has been erratic, Smith has still been in on enough scoring plays by way of the assist, thus averting any major overall slumps.
The fact that he has generally maintained his point production touch despite repeated line shuffling was no safe bet beforehand. Johnson’s reliability was not either, but a goaltender does not need to answer questions about on-ice chemistry with other players the same way wingers do.
In turn, any spin on any stretch in his season is bound to point to Smith exceeding his expectations at least a little more.
Granted, he is now at a point where all higher-ups and observers alike should expect more from him than they did a few months ago. But in that sense, he is projecting at the same pace as Johnson, who has gone from a mystery masked man to a sturdy second stringer.
Because their outlook is progressing at the same pace, Smith figures to win this race. He has already done as much in 57 games (if not more) than what one might have figured he would do in 82.
Assuming he stays in shape and retains his rhythm over the Olympic break, he can put the stamp on his above-and-beyond 2013-14 by hustling to a goal total in the mid-20s and point count in the upper 50s. Johnson has most likely brushed his ceiling as far as his statistical range and frequency in appearances.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com