The Oilers got a boost when Smyth, their leading goal-scorer, returned to the lineup after being out almost a month with a broken right thumb. Smyth had a goal in his first game back and a team-high seven shots, but the Los Angeles Kings defeated Edmonton 7-4. Smyth, out since Dec. 2, wore a plastic brace under a specially fitted hockey glove in Thursday’s contest.
“All in all I felt pretty good,” he said. “There were a few bumps but I expected that.
“It held up well.”
But Smyth said the brace did hamper his play somewhat.
“I’m still a little restricted with the brace that I have,” he said. “There are a few plays that I wish I could have back.
“There were some things in front of the net that I could usually do a little quicker. But it was my choice to play.”
Oilers coach Craig MacTavish had nothing but praise for Smyth.
“I thought it was a courageous and outstanding game from him,” he said. “You stop being surprised with him.
“I was when I saw how effective he was tonight, right from the first shift.”
MacTavish was comfortable using Smyth despite the brace.
“I have a hard time keeping a guy that’s that valuable out of the lineup when he’s really wanting to play,” said MacTavish.
He said the brace shouldn’t hurt Smyth’s style, which is to park in front of the opposing goalie, take some heavy lumber from defencemen and score.
“He doesn’t score from the outside, let’s put it that way,” MacTavish laughed.
“He’s going to be able to get to the front of the net and be effective there and play his game.”
Smyth’s return is a shot in the arm for the defending Western Conference champions, who are fighting for top spot in the NHL’s gridlocked Northwest Division.
The team has fought through injuries and inconsistency this season. When goalie Dwayne Roloson is hot, the offence has tanked; when the goal scoring comes, the defence and Roloson struggle.
Smyth and play-making winger Ales Hemsky have been sidelined with injuries, causing the team’s power play to short out in recent games and forcing MacTavish to juggle line combinations.
Hemsky came back just over a week ago from a shoulder injury and has picked up where he left off with a goal and three assists in four games before Thursday. He has re-energized linemate Petr Sykora, who has three goals and two assists in that span.
Centre Shawn Horcoff says the signs are there for the Oilers to make a run in the division.
“Inserting Ryan into the lineup is only going to make us stronger up front, and we’re going to need that,” said Horcoff.
“If you can put together a good stretch of games – where you’re winning six, seven or eight games out of the next nine or 10 – you can start to separate yourself from the pack.”
Despite missing most of December, Smyth still leads the Oilers with 17 goals. The 30-year-old native of Banff, Alta., – drafted sixth overall by the Oilers in 1994 – is also among the franchise leaders in goals, assists and points.
His hockey resume is built on playing through pain, highlighted by Game 3 of the second-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks this spring.
In the second period, Smyth took an errant Chris Pronger clearing shot square in the jaw that smashed out two teeth and shredded his lip. He was helped to the bench, trailed by a wavy crimson line of blood, but got stitched up came back to set up the winning goal in overtime.