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C.J. Smith scores first NHL goal; now he wants to remain with Sabres

C.J. Smith always dreamed about scoring his first NHL goal.

But he never pictured it quite like this, the puck dribbling in slow motion past New Jersey Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, it momentarily coming to rest just inside the far post, a question rippling through the arena as to whether defenseman Sami Vatanen had dug it out with his stick before it crossed the goal line. Smith had no doubt.

“When I shot it and went behind the net there, I saw it was in,” Smith said. “It’s kind of funny, nobody else really knew it was in, so I kind of celebrated by myself there. But it felt good.”

The shot, called a goal on the ice and upheld on review, gave the Buffalo Sabres a 2-1 lead 4:14 into the second period and helped spark an explosive and unanswered five-goal middle stanza, as the Sabres buried the Devils in an avalanche of secondary scoring, 5-1, Tuesday night at KeyBank Center, no small feat without injured captain Jack Eichel.

Buffalo has been preaching about the importance of secondary scoring since its 10-game win streak ended in late November. The Sabres have since mustered a 6-8-4 record while hanging on to playoff positioning. The Sabres scored five goals on 15 shots in the second period against the Devils. Jeff Skinner’s blast to put Buffalo on the board was followed by goals from Smith, Casey Mittelstadt, Jake McCabe and Lawrence Pilut, Smith's roommate in Rochester who also recorded his first NHL goal Tuesday night.

“We know what he can do,” Johan Larsson said of Smith after centering the Sabres’ third line between the rookie and veteran forward Kyle Okposo. “He’s a smart hockey player and you can see he’s got skills. He’s a guy who knows where to go on the ice, works hard and it was nice to see him rewarded with a first goal.”

It was the Sabres’ most prolific period at home in a decade – since they scored five in the third period against Carolina on Nov. 28, 2009. They had scored only 15 goals in their previous eight games.

Smith, 24, was playing in just his fourth game since being called up from Rochester to make his season debut against the New York Islanders on New Year’s Eve after Zemgus Girgensons had been placed on injured reserve. At the time, Smith led all Rochester forwards in scoring with 29 points, 13 goals and 16 assists in 33 games.

The Sabres hoped Smith would provide a spark, and though he’d been skating well, he hadn’t done much, recording six shots in three games before taking the ice Tuesday night.

Smith attempted three shots against the Devils, two of them on goal, one ricocheting off the post on the first shift of the game.

“I just think he attacked the game,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “I think everybody was in attack mode and paying attention to detail when the puck got turned over. They’re one of those teams that a possession change in the offensive zone, they’re getting out to attack. But I just liked (how) he was poised, he was composed, he found a way to get that one by Kinkaid, and it was a big goal, the second (Sabres) goal of the game, and it’s good to see him contribute.”

Smith signed with the Sabres as an undrafted free agent out of UMass Lowell in March 2017. He had 56 goals in three seasons in college and was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team in 2015.

Smith appeared in two games with the Sabres to end the 2016-17 season, recording his first NHL point on an assist in his debut against the Islanders, and had starred for Rochester ever since.

Last season, Smith tied for the Amerks' team lead with 17 goals. His 44 points were tied for 10th among AHL rookies. And he was named MVP of the league's All-Star Classic.

This was despite missing more than a month with an ankle injury that continued to hamper his production over the final 15 regular-season games and playoffs.

“I worked really hard to get back here in Buffalo and I think I had a good season in Roch last year, with a little injury that hurt me along the way,” Smith said. “But you know what? You’ve got to stay positive and keep working and I came out to a hot start in Roch this year and we were playing really well, and I was excited to get the call-up and get that first goal.”

Smith signed a one-year contract extension with the Sabres in July and participated in training camp before being assigned to Rochester.

It’s possible Smith will be sent back as soon as Friday should Eichel return from an upper body injury that has caused him to miss the last three games. But Smith intends to stay.

“I’ve got to do whatever I can to help contribute to the team, help them win,” Smith said. “Some nights that may not be scoring, but I’ve just got to do whatever I can to stay up, and that’s my goal for the rest of the year.”

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