Well, it’s Nate’s time too. Schmidt led the Golden Knights in ice time in the regular season, averaging 22:14 per game, almost two minutes more than anyone else. Now he leads them in ice time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, averaging 25:11, more than two minutes more than anyone else.
He helped blank Winnipeg Jets forwards Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler in a 3-1 victory at Bell MTS Place on Monday, tying the Western Conference Final 1-1. Game 3 of the best-of-7 series is at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Like so many of his teammates, he wanted — needed — an opportunity like this, and he’s taking advantage of it.
“The challenge is great,” Schmidt said. “You play against great players. That’s what you want. You want to test yourself every night. You’re playing a great line that’s been very good in the playoffs, and you want to be able to leave your mark on the game, and that’s the way we’re leaving our mark on the game right now.
“Yes, we’re in the Western Conference Final. But it seems like we’re just out there having fun and playing another game.”
Schmidt was never selected in the NHL Draft. After signing with the Washington Capitals as a free agent on April 3, 2013, he split two seasons between the NHL and the American Hockey League before establishing himself in the NHL full time.
Last season, after the Capitals acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the New York Rangers on Feb. 27, he was scratched 14 times in 16 games. He was scratched for the first two games of the playoffs too and exposed in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.
Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, who had signed him originally as the Capitals’ GM, was thrilled to take him.
Schmidt never averaged more than 18:04 per game in the regular season or 16:39 in the playoffs for the Capitals. Now, at 26, he’s playing on the top pair with Brayden McNabb for the Golden Knights and facing opponents’ top players, while giving life to the locker room and quotes to the media in a new market.
“What I respect about him is, he’s had to really work for everything he’s gotten,” said Golden Knights forward Erik Haula, who played with Schmidt at the University of Minnesota. “He’s playing really well, and he’s showing everybody how good he is. And I think he’s just going to get better too.”
McPhee called Schmidt another example of something that went right for Vegas in its incredible inaugural season.
“He wasn’t playing a lot with his previous team; I think they planned on playing him a lot this year,” McPhee said. “We saw something in him that we thought we could use that would be good for our club — the speed, the mobility and the commitment.
“He happens to be a great kid. It’s funny how things go. We signed him as a free agent out of college. He was as quiet as a church mouse. He never said much. Now he’s sort of comfortable in his own skin and not so quiet, but he’s talkative in a good way, in a fun way. He’s really good for this club.”
Schmidt’s greatest asset is his skating. But he also has a good stick and reads the play well at both ends of the ice.
“He’s always a couple plays ahead,” Haula said.
He had 36 points (five goals, 31 assists) in the regular season and has five points (two goals, three assists) in the playoffs. All those numbers are career highs in the NHL.
“I’ve always thought he was an extremely underrated player,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It was just a matter of time once he got the opportunity to play those type of minutes. You knew he was going to be a top-two defenseman because he can skate, he can handle the puck, he works as hard as anyone, battles in front of the net. He does everything. He wants to be good at everything.”
Schmidt was all over the ice Monday. He swept a puck out of the crease, helped force a turnover that led to a goal, made a pass that sprung Haula on a breakaway, won a battle with Scheifele, drew a holding penalty on Wheeler, blocked two shots and more.
“I watched five minutes of [Game 2], and I feel like his face was on the screen the whole time,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s a great guy, brings a lot of energy. … He just goes out there, does his thing, has fun every day. That’s a great way to be.”
NHL.com Staff Writer Tom Gulitti and NHL.com Correspondent Brian McNally contributed.
Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Final Coverage