Devante Smith-Pelly had yet to take the ice, but the Capital One Arena crowd started chanting his name well before warmups. As radio announcer John Walton and Capitals analyst Mike Vogel discussed Smith-Pelly’s pending return from the American Hockey League in a pre-game video, persistent chants of “DSP, DSP” broke out.
Those cheers intensified when the 26-year-old was shown on the jumbotron for the first time.
But as happy as fans were to see Smith-Pelly in a Capitals uniform again, the fanfare mattered little compared to what the winger brought to his team in Washington’s 6-0 win Saturday over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Days after the Capitals realized T.J. Oshie would be out indefinitely with an upper-body injury, Smith-Pelly rejoined Washington and provided precisely the physicality that was missing over the last two games.
The Capitals now lead the series 3-2 with a chance to advance to the next round on Monday.
“When you go through the situation we went through the last couple of days in terms of losing one of our top players and leaders, you use that as an opportunity that someone has to take advantage of,” coach Todd Reirden said. “And for what Devante has gone through this year, a very well liked player in our locker room, it was a nice, I’d say, distraction from us losing a top, top player, top leader on our team.
“Everyone was excited about getting him back into the mix. We felt like not just having him around as a person, but the style of game that he was going to play, we’ve been lagging in this series.”
From his very first shift, Smith-Pelly made his presence felt. He slammed Hurricanes winger Nino Niederreiter into the glass — causing the crowd to give him a standing ovation. It was the first of five hits that Smith-Pelly delivered in the evening.
Exactly two months ago, Smith-Pelly was placed on waivers. The Capitals made the move in order to free up a roster spot ahead of the trade deadline, but they also specifically chose to designate Smith-Pelly after his disappointing season.
Dubbed a playoff hero for scoring seven goals during last year’s Stanley Cup run, Smith-Pelly showed up to camp out of shape. He was held out of preseason games until he met the team’s conditioning standards. Even when Smith-Pelly eventually returned to the lineup, he saw his role diminished. After he was put on waivers, NHL teams passed on the chance to claim him — setting up a stint with the AHL Hershey Bears.
The move, Smith-Pelly admitted, was hard to handle. The winger said he kept in touch with his teammates, missing them “a lot.” He didn’t know if he would ever return to the Capitals, adding he tried not to think about it. Logistically, Smith-Pelly said he stayed in a hotel, leaving his apartment and most of his things behind.
“It was good to come home and sleep in my own bed,” Smith-Pelly said.
For all his time away, Smith-Pelly played exactly as the Capitals had wanted upon his return. After the win, Reirden said he felt like the Capitals had gotten away from their “physical brand” of hockey in recent days — which was a staple of their game last year. Washington had lost two straight to Carolina, and in general, had been badly outshot in the series.
Smith-Pelly, who played 10:43, helped the fourth line do a better job in maintaining offensive zone time. He had one shot on goal — and even came close to scoring when he almost knocked in a rebound off a shot from Nic Dowd.
But Smith-Pelly didn’t have to get into the score sheet to make an impact.
“To be honest, I think we drew a lot from Devo being here,” Dowd said. “His first couple 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.”
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