Eye of the Tiger
Smith Leads RIT In First-Ever D-I Playoffs
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Their time has finally come.
For 40 seasons, the RIT Tigers played in various conferences within Divisions II and III. At times, they were dominant — amassing, for instance, a striking 50-3-3 record in the 2001 and 2002 seasons alone.
Then, for the 2005-2006 season, RIT made the jump to Division I, playing its first season as an independent school without a home conference. Last year, the Tigers joined Atlantic Hockey, but still, they were not permitted to play in the postseason due to NCAA rules.
As it were, RIT surprised many, perhaps even themselves, and won the league championship anyway.
Now, for the first time in school history, RIT charges into the playoffs as a Division I program. And to kick off the festivities this past weekend, the Tigers swept a two-game home playoff series with Holy Cross, winning both games in memorable fashion, 5-4 in overtime.
The hero? Matt Smith, a senior who played in Division III as a freshman along with his classmates and now finally gets to play in the playoffs as a Division I athlete. Smith made the most of his big-league playoff debut by scoring not one, but two, hat-tricks. His sixth goal of the weekend was the overtime game-winner on Saturday night.
"He had 21 goals during the regular season, so he was a bit of a proven commodity coming into the playoffs," said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, now in his ninth year at the helm. "Playoffs are kind of a special time for hockey players. I think for all our seniors who wanted to get back to the playoffs this senior year, it's an added incentive. It's something that's new, it's something they're excited about, and they're not taking it for granted."
According to Smith, the work to get to this point began long before the season even began.
Explained the senior, "We did a lot of offseason training every day in the spring and in the summer, as well. There was a lot of built up aggression I guess because we hadn't played [in the playoffs] in a couple of years. So that was motivation in and of itself. And also, losing [then-sophomore] Steve Pinizzotto [to the pros] in the offseason kind of hurt us, so I knew I had to pick up my game as a senior and try to lead the team to the playoffs."
Smith, who has seen his point total increase each of his four years at RIT, has done more than just "pick up his game." His offensive numbers are in fact among the best in the country. He is tied with Colorado College's Chad Rau for second in the nation in goals per game, with 27 goals in 35 games.
His 17 power-play tallies are the most of any player in the country.
"He's just a goal scorer," said Wilson. "I'm sure he's averaging over five shots a game. He has a great shot, he has a heavy shot, and he's not afraid to take shots either. I think those are the things that make him a great goal scorer. Our power play is probably where he’s more free to get a shot off, unless they want to put a person right on him."
Smith may be scoring all the goals lately, but not surprisingly, he's been getting some help. Fellow senior Simon Lambert tallied six assists in the weekend sweep of Holy Cross, and his 51 points are second-most in the nation, behind only Hobey frontrunner Kevin Porter of Michigan.
And Smith wasted no time in crediting Lambert and his other teammates for his recent success, particularly on the power play.
"We've got [Dan] Ringwald on the point," said Smith. "He's the leading D-man in our league giving me nice passes, and I just try to get them on net. Simon Lambert is feeding me the puck back-door sometimes, and I'm just tapping it in. We've got a great unit going. We're clicking right now"
"Clicking" is an understatement. The RIT power play unit is arguably the most efficient in the country — converting at a 23.2 percent clip, scoring 41 times while allowing no shorthanded goals. Only two other teams in the country (UMass.-Lowell, Alabama-Huntsville) have allowed no shorthanded goals this season, but those two schools haven't even scored 41 power play goals combined.
And indeed, it was the power play that helped the Tigers tremendously over the weekend in advancing over Holy Cross. Smith, Lambert, and company went 4-for-8 on the man-advantage in the two victories.
Still, in both games, RIT found itself trailing headed into the third period. Both Wilson and Smith commented on the atmosphere in the Tiger locker room.
"There was a sense of calmness," said Wilson. "You know, it's hard to describe. You just feel things when you walk in the locker room — guys are too loose, guys are not focused, or maybe too high strung. You hear a lot of different things when you go in. I felt a lot of confidence and calmness. Everything was positive."
Added Smith, echoing Wilson's description, "We just wanted to remain positive. The coaching staff came in and said, 'Everybody's playing well. Just keep it up, and things are going to go in for you.' So we knew the whole time, if we stayed positive, kept on shooting the puck on net, eventually something will go in for us. They might not be the prettiest goals, but they will eventually find the back of the net somehow."
Smith, it should be noted, knows just as well as anyone in the country that staying positive and just shooting the puck can lead to positive results. In fact, the Toronto native is second in the nation in shots on goal this season, with 186. He trails only Boston College's Nathan Gerbe, who has 192 in the same number of games.
And his final shot of the weekend, of course, was the OT series-winner.
"It was just a relief," said Smith. "First of all, knowing that we'd have a day off and wouldn't have to play on Sunday, and second of all, knowing that our season's not over yet. It was just a great play. Brent Patry shot the puck on net, which we hope our D always does, and I was just lucky enough to get my stick on it so that it went over the goaltender's shoulder. And the rest is history. But it's just nice because it's the last game that us seniors were playing at the Frank Ritter Memorial. We've been playing there for four years now, and it's just good to get the win in front of our home crowd."
Now, this weekend, RIT will head to nearby Blue Cross Arena with the hopes that many of its home fans will give them a home-ice advantage at the Atlantic Hockey Final Five. The Tigers will face Air Force in Saturday's second semifinal and, in just their third year in Division I, are just two wins away from an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Indeed, it's been a long time coming for RIT, and Wilson candidly reminisced about the program's long but rewarding journey.
"I've been more than thrilled with how we've evolved into a Division I program," said Wilson. "Our first year, I can't remember off-hand, but I think we were involved in 21 one-goal games. There were 21 games where we pulled our goalie. Not all of them were very successful, but it just showed that we were competing well. I was very happy with how the team competed even though there were no standings, and the losses were mounting. When you don't win a lot of games, and there's nothing to play for, it would be easy to pack it in. But I was very happy with the character of that particular team.
"Going to our second year, winning the league title was a big statement for our program, our administration, our players, our staff. We were overwhelmed really. It was something we were hoping for but not expecting. And this year, one of our priorities was to do well outside of our league. Knocking off Cornell at Blue Cross Arena, then going to Minnesota and beating them, and then tying Niagara, and playing a one-goal game at Colgate — those were all games we were very proud of. In the national picture, we showed we could also compete. I thought that was a big stride. This is another huge test for us this weekend going into Blue Cross to see how we can do in a Final Five situation."
And on Saturday against Air Force, a Tigers team that has earned more than its share of stripes over the past few years will try to do something it's gotten quite used to of late: taking another momentous leap forward.