After fast start to NHL career, Predators' Smith has stopped scoring

Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 11:47pm

Craig Smith continues to do almost all of the things he did at the start of the season. Almost.

The one notable exception is that the rookie forward has stopped scoring.

As he enters Friday’s game at St. Louis (7 p.m., Fox Sports-Tennessee) Smith has gone 11 straight games without a goal and has scored just once in his last 22 contests. Only defensive specialist Jerred Smithson and tough guy Brian McGrattan, among the team’s regular forwards, have gone longer since their last goals.

“For whatever reason, the pucks aren’t going in right now,” Smith said. “I just have to bear down, make sure I’m bearing down in practice and pre-game skates, making sure I get myself prepared. That’s all I can do right now.

“I’m not going to get frustrated about it. I know if you do the right things eventually things are going to happen.”

It speaks to how productive Smith was at the outset that he remains tied for third among the Predators with eight goals.

Plus, he has 10 assists over the last 22 contests, and his 25 points are most among Nashville forwards and second overall only to captain Shea Weber. He also ranks third among all NHL rookies in points and first with four power play goals.

“He’s getting to the point where he’s played almost as many pro games and preseason games as he did in an entire college season,” coach Barry Trotz said. “It won’t be physical fatigue, it will be mental fatigue. … In the NHL you don’t get a lot of time to let go of the game and recharge your batteries.

“It’s tough for a player the first time through.”

Smith, of course, made the decision well into the offseason to skip his final two years of eligibility at the University of Wisconsin and turn pro.

Unlike virtually every other Predators prospect, he stepped right into the NHL without any seasoning in the American Hockey League. Even more unusual was the fact that he started to score right away — he was the only Nashville player with goals in each of the first two contests.

“With [37] games under my belt, I feel more comfortable than I did at the start,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been adjusting well. I’m having fun with it.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience. I love being here. I love playing for the Predators. I love being in this town. … Everything just seemed to work out.”

The good news for Smith is that Friday’s game is on the road, as are several others in the near future.

The vast majority of his points — 17, to be exact (six goals, 11 assists) — have come in road games. In his only previous appearance at St. Louis, back on Oct. 8, he had one goal and two assists — the first of three three-point performances (all in road games) he’s recorded.

Eight of the Predators’ last 11 contests have been at Bridgestone Arena.

“I think he’s still skating, still working,” Trotz said. “When pucks were going into the net for him, he was shooting it a lot and shooting it a lot. He was really driving the net hard and he was finding pucks.

“When things aren’t going your way as a player, the number one thing is to work harder. … Just keep putting pucks to the net. Just keep driving to the net. Keep it simple and things will fall into place.”

Smith is one of only two rookies throughout the league with more than 100 shots on goal thus far.

Even with his recent scoring drought, he still is likely to shatter the franchise’s rookie records for goals (10, by Alexander Radulov in 2006-07), assists (24, by Martin Erat in 2001-02) and points (37, by Radulov).

“I think at some point, they’re just not going to go in,” Smith said. “… The only thing you can do is control what you can control and make sure you’re shooting the puck and making sure you’re putting yourself in areas where pucks can pop out and squirt out too so you can put one in, … if I wasn’t finding shots to the net and I wasn’t getting myself to the net, then I think I’d have a big problem.”