ANAHEIM, Calif. – Craig Smith just might be the antidote to the Nashville Predators’ many seasons of sickly offence.
The speedy rookie centre had no problem outskating the Anaheim Ducks, who aren’t getting nearly as much out of their wealth of talent.
Smith had two goals and an assist, Martin Erat scored on a second-period penalty shot, and Nashville wrapped up a five-game trip with a 4-2 victory over the struggling Ducks on Wednesday night.
Smith, who played at the University of Wisconsin last season, capped the second three-point game of his short career with his second goal early in the third period, banging in a pass from Wilson in front. The 22-year-old American has matched David Legwand for the Predators’ scoring lead with 14 points.
“I’m just making sure I’m doing my job and chipping in when I can,” Smith said. “It’s been really good so far. I’m playing with some guys who know the game real well, and I’m just trying to help out.”
Smith played on a makeshift line with Patric Hornqvist, who had three assists, and Colin Wilson, who had a goal and an assist. All three youngsters shined in the absence of Legwand, who missed his first game of the season because of an undisclosed upper body injury sustained in the first period of Nashville’s 4-3 loss to the Kings on Tuesday.
“I’ve only had (Smith) for a short time, but he’s just a really focused kid,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s got dynamic speed. He wants to win those races for pucks and battles, and he’s emerging as a really good player.”
Pekka Rinne made 31 saves in the Predators’ fifth win in seven games. The Predators’ $49 million goalie had started every game this season until taking the night off in Los Angeles. He beat the Ducks 3-0 in Nashville on Oct. 29, kicking off Anaheim’s losing streak.
Nashville has dominated Anaheim in the first two rematches of the clubs’ first-round playoff series last spring, won in six games by the Predators.
Right wing Jordin Tootoo unleashed a profane locker-room diatribe against the Ducks after the game, apparently reacting to Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf’s criticism of him for allegedly embellishing penalties in the Ducks’ loss at Nashville last month.
“Obviously, we’ve got to know each other a lot,” Trotz said. “I don’t think we really care for each other, that’s the good part about the playoffs.”
Teenage Ducks rookie Devante Smith-Pelly got credit for his first NHL goal when a puck deflected in off his leg in the first period. Francois Beauchemin also scored for the road-weary Ducks, who have lost six straight and nine of 10.
Jonas Hiller stopped 28 shots, but the 2011 All-Star lost his fifth straight decision in the Ducks’ return from a seven-game trip for just their fifth game at Honda Center this season.
“It’s hard. We’re letting each other down,” said Getzlaf, who has one point in six games. “The little mistakes we’re making are costing us. The last few games we were gripping the sticks pretty tight and trying to do a few more things than we need to. I thought we did a better job of staying within our system, but we had a few mental breakdowns, and it cost us.”
After a two-week European road swing to open the season, Anaheim went 1-3-3 during a 16-day absence from home, ending with a 5-0 loss at Detroit described by several Ducks as their worst game.
At least the schedule gets much more friendly to the Ducks, who will get on a plane only for a one-day trip to Phoenix during the next four weeks, playing 11 of 13 at home overall.
“We’re in a funk right now and it’s up to us to battle through that adversity, rally around each other and try to get out of it,” Ducks defenceman Cam Fowler said. “We can’t find a way to get a W. I think we put a better effort out there tonight, but they just capitalized on some of our mistakes. It’s just how the bounces are going right now.”
Smith scored his sixth just 80 seconds in, banking the puck off Hiller from behind the net. Wilson added his third goal 4 1/2 minutes later, but Fowler’s shot through traffic in the final minute of the first period went in off Smith-Pelly’s knee.
Smith-Pelly, the 19-year-old right wing who made the Ducks’ roster directly out of junior hockey, had one point with a minus-5 rating in his first 12 NHL games. Fowler leads the Ducks with more than 25 1/2 minutes of ice time per game, but the 19-year-old defenceman hasn’t scored a goal in the first 14 games of his second full NHL season.
Erat put a penalty shot past Hiller after Lubomir Visnovsky hit him with his stick on a short-handed breakaway.
NOTES: Nashville will spend the next two weeks at home during a five-game stand. … Ducks C Peter Holland originally was credited with his first NHL point with a first-period assist, but it was taken away when Fowler’s apparent goal was awarded to Smith-Pelly 45 minutes after the game ended.