Chicago Blackhawks' Smith knows how tough it is to get so close

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz (14) celebrates with his teammates after scoring a game winning goal against the Ottawa Senators during the second overtime period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoffs in Pittsburgh, Thursday, May 25, 2017. Penguins won 3-2 in overtime.

    Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz (14) celebrates with his teammates after scoring a game winning goal against the Ottawa Senators during the second overtime period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoffs in Pittsburgh, Thursday, May 25, 2017. Penguins won 3-2 in overtime.

  • Chicago Blackhawks center Zack Smith, left and Detroit Red Wings defenseman Filip Hronek battle for the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. The Blackhawks won 4-2.

    Chicago Blackhawks center Zack Smith, left and Detroit Red Wings defenseman Filip Hronek battle for the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. The Blackhawks won 4-2.

 
 
Updated 1/14/2020 9:48 PM

Of all the goals Blackhawks forward Zack Smith has scored, assisted on or seen in person, there's one that will stick in his craw for all eternity.

It came during a do-or-die Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals between Smith's Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins. After winning Game 6 to stay alive, Ottawa was locked in a 2-2 battle with the defending champions in double overtime.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The next goal would send one team to the Stanley Cup Final, while handing the other the ultimate heartbreak.

While Smith sat watching on the bench, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby retrieved a puck deep in his offensive zone, expertly stickhandled away from defenseman Chris Wideman and slid a pass to Chris Kunitz.

Kunitz wound up, fired and scored.

While the home crowd erupted and the Penguins mobbed Kunitz, a shellshocked Smith sat in disbelief with his Senators teammates.

"Your heart sinks to the bottom of your stomach," said Smith, who Tuesday faced his former team for the first time since being traded to the Hawks for Artem Anisimov. "You're just kind of stunned.

"That's a feeling you don't really want to forget because if you're in that situation again you want to be able to give it that much more and not (go through that) again."

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The Senators are the perfect example of how small the window is for some teams to contend for a Cup. Since that fateful night three seasons ago, Ottawa has plummeted to the bottom of the league.

It didn't happen all at once, mind you, as Smith and Co. began the 2017-18 campaign with an 8-3-5 record. The turning point, according to Smith, came after the Sens traded Kyle Turris to Colorado in exchange for Matt Duchene. The deal went down just before those teams met in a two-game set in Sweden on Nov. 10-11.

Although Ottawa won both contests, Smith said things weren't the same -- and the results showed as the Sens went 1-10-2 in its next 13 games en route to a 28-43-11 season.

Things didn't improve last year as Ottawa went 29-47-6.

Smith, who was drafted in the third round by the Senators in 2008 and scored 41 goals for them from 2015-17, isn't disappointed he's not around for the rebuild.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If they were set up to go for a playoff run, I think that would be harder," he said. "There's been a massive turnaround the last two years. ...

"Not that that makes it any easier. It was a fun team. I felt a lot different last year because we were so young and I just felt really old with a lot of the kids in that room."

Smith, signed through next season at a $3.25 million cap hit, is costing the Hawks $1.3 million less than Anisimov. As a fourth-line forward, he has mostly flown under the radar with 2 goals and 7 assists in 40 games.

Coach Jeremy Colliton, though, appreciates that Smith can play all three forward positions, that he's a part of the Hawks' 10th-ranked penalty kill, and that "he has a leadership role with the group."

That role was tested a bit early on because Colliton healthy scratched the 31-year-old veteran seven times in a nine-game stretch.

"I was upset," Smith admitted. "It was an adjustment coming here. New room, new coaches, new atmosphere."

Since Smith re-entered the lineup Nov. 7, he's never come out. Not only that, he's seen his average ice time rise from 9.5 minutes in his first seven games to 12:09 in the last 33.

"Looking back now, you're like, 'OK, maybe it wasn't the wrong decision by the coaches,' " said Smith, who won 7 of 10 faceoffs and had 2 takeaways during the Hawks' 3-2 OT victory over Ottawa. "But hindsight's always 20/20. At this point it doesn't affect me. That was a long time ago. ...

"I'm just trying to stay in the lineup every night and do whatever I can to help the team win."

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