Smyth Adds Offensive Punch for Islanders Playoff Drive
By Brian Bohl
UNIONDALE, NY- One by one the Islanders skated out for the pregame warm-ups. As each successive player moved from the hallway to the playing surface, the volume of the crowd's roar steadily grew. The cheers reached a crescendo as Ryan Smyth, the last player to enter the Nassau Coliseum ice, made his first appearance in an Islanders jersey last Thursday.
Smyth, an All-Star winger who the Islanders acquired on February 27 in a blockbuster trade deadline deal with Edmonton, immediately heard his named chanted by the 12,263 in attendance. The movie script beginning took an early plot twist for No. 94, who nearly slipped making a turn near the right boards. He recovered quickly before moving to the bench for a television interview.
But that inauspicious start for the 30-goal scorer was soon forgotten, as the roars grew louder when he was an announced during the starting lineup introductions. That was just the beginning of the ovations for the former Oilers star, who immediately contributed on Mike Sillinger's first period power play goal and contributed to Marc-Andre Bergeron second-period tally.
A late charge by the St. Louis Blues cost the Islanders a point after they blew a two-goal lead in the final two-and-a-half minutes in losing in overtime, 3-2, but Smyth's impact on the first line with Jason Blake and Randy Robitallie was noticed immediately.
"He played exceptionally well for a guy going through such an emotional period of life," coach Ted Nolan said. "Good things will come. You can tell he has strong leadership skills and that he'll be a great addition to this hockey team." Getting on the ice capped a whirlwind ordeal for the four-time 30-goal scorer. Smyth, 31, arrived on Long Island the night before playing St. Louis. When his plane from Minnesota finally arrived, the next chapter in the 6-1, 190-pound left-wing's life commenced, starting with a new uniform in a different country.
His presence not only contributed to a more enthusiastic crowd, but also forced the Islanders to use a larger press room to accommodate the large Canadian press contingent.
"I was nervous and excited in the same breath," Smyth said after making his debut. "The guys really supported me on the bench. As the game went on, I felt more involved."
Smyth did not shed any tears this time, as he did when he spoke to the press after the Oilers announced they traded the impending free agent in exchange for 2003 first-round choice Robert Nilsson, 2005 first-round choice Ryan O'Marra and the Islanders' 2007 first-round draft pick.
The trade shocked Smyth, who helped lead the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals last season and represented them in January's All-Star game. Edmonton originally selected Smyth with the sixth overall draft choice in 1994, allowing the Alberta native to play for his hometown team. That history made wearing a new jersey a strange experience.
"I honestly admit that; it's tough [after] 12 years of putting an Oiler jersey on," Smyth said. "Like I said before, it's a new chapter and I just want to get in the playoffs and give that extra boost."
Smyth was born Baniff, a town just 182 miles away from Edmonton. He grew up watching Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky led the Oilers to four championships in five seasons.
Like Messier, Edmonton traded their most popular player to a New York team in the prime of his career because of contractual concerns, though Smyth said he was just focused on gathering his emotions and help the Islanders make a strong push during the final 18 regular season games.
"We're playing pretty much every second day, so that's good for getting over situations like this," Smyth said. "I just want to help this team win."
When Alexei Yashin returns from his knee injury, Nolan indicated he will team the captain with Blake and Smyth, giving the unit three current or former 30-goal scorers. Smyth recorded 31 goals in 52 games for the Oilers, tallying 265 goals in his career.
Blake also has something in common with Smyth besides scoring ability: both players will likely be seeking five-year deals as an unrestricted free agents starting July 1. Blake broke the 30-goal barrier for the first time in his career with a hat trick against the Flyers last week, and the forward said his new linemate should only improve as he becomes more comfortable in his new surroundings.
"He's a very strong forward down low. He controls the play there," Blake said. "It's his first game. I thought he played really well. He had a long day yesterday and got the first one out of the way. He turned to me and said, 'this is the first time I've been nervous in a long time.'"