Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 | 2 a.m.
That familiar smile was back at City National Arena.
Anyone who’s spent time around the Golden Knights can recognize Nate Schmidt. He’s almost always grinning from ear to ear, laughing while he skates and hollers playfully during practice.
“Any room Schmidty’s in, it’s filled with energy,” defenseman Jon Merrill said.
Schmidt returned to the ice this week at practice, taking both regular line rushes and returning to his spot on the power play. Schmidt and coach Gerard Gallant wouldn’t say it outright, but all signs point to Schmidt suiting up when the Golden Knights host the Montreal Canadiens at 7 p.m. tonight. It would be his first game since opening night nearly a month ago.
“Super awesome, back with my friends,” Schmidt said. “It’s just good to feel back in the mix again. You get the buzz around the guys, you get the banter upstairs in the weight room, when you’re warming up, when you get on the ice.”
Schmidt has played all of 3:11 this season after he took a knee-to-knee hit from San Jose’s Logan Couture on his fifth shift of the first game of the year. He was in serious pain and conceded that he had some “next season type of thoughts” as he was being helped off the ice.
He couldn’t have come back at a better time. The unquestioned weak spot of the team this year has been its defense, a unit that is in the bottom-third of the league in shots allowed. Vegas has sent two rookies — Nicolas Hague and Jake Bischoff — into action, though neither impressed enough to hold a grip on the position. Currently, both are in AHL Chicago, though one or both could be recalled before tonight’s game.
It’s also forced goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on multiple occasions to drag the team to victory, as he ranks near the top of the league in goals saved above average. Having Schmidt back will only make things easier.
“Injuries are part of the game, but guys step up in those situations,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “A guy like Nate Schmidt, he’s been our best ‘D’ for the past two years, so it will be fun to see him out there.”
It’s the second time in as many years that Schmidt has missed a dozen or more games, including last year’s 20-game drug suspension. Last year Vegas went 8-11-1 without Schmidt. This year they are 8-5. Last year he was training in Austria, which made it hard to watch the Golden Knights when games started at 3 a.m. local time. This year he’s been able to stay around the team, which you would think would make it easier.
“You’re sitting there going through hell, grinding with the guys but not doing anything,” Schmidt said. “It’s hard. It’s never easy to sit and watch your guys go to battle without you.”
The Golden Knights survived without Schmidt. They’re on a 100-point pace after being on a 70-point pace without him last year. Would they win eight of their next 13 games without him? Impossible to say. But thankfully for the Golden Knights, they won’t need to find out.
“We’ll see. Getting better every day,” he said coyly through his trademark grin when asked if he would play Thursday night. “It was awesome to be out there the last couple of days.”