Ben Smith Ignites Boston College Again
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
DETROIT Ben Smith scored Boston College's first goal on Thursday night. Six more followed, so that first one didn't seem that important by the end of the night, though; the Eagles defeated Miami 7-1 in the day's second national semifinal game to earn a place in Saturday's national championship where they'll play Wisconsin for the second time in five years.
Smith's goal began in a rather dubious manner for the senior. He drifted into the faceoff circle and crouched across from Miami center Carter Camper. A little too anxious, Smith swiped across the circle, and the linesman's right arm shot up. Getting tossed from a faceoff is hardly a new experience for a center, but Smith still wasn't pleased. He skated to the right wing and sophomore Cam Atkinson replaced him at the dot.
Atkinson, as he has most of the year for the Eagles, made a crucial play in winning the draw to Steven Whitney who slid it back to brother Joe at the left point. The moment Atkinson won the puck, Smith knew his lone obligation was getting to the net. As Joe Whitney collected the puck from his brother, Smith patiently drifted into the slot as Whitney fired a shot toward Miami goaltender Connor Knapp. As the puck sailed toward Knapp, Smith accelerated and deflected the puck off its path and over Knapp's shoulder.
"I just found that spot in the slot near the top of the face-off circle, and [Joe Whitney] just kind of gave me a shot pass," Smith said. "I was able to tip it. That's tough for goalies when it's coming from one angle, and it gets defected."
Again, the Eagles added a few more. But like it's been for most of 2009-10, the Eagles don't roll to a win as easily as they do if Smith doesn't get them on track. Fans forgot about the goal by the end, but Smith's teammates, they know how important the goal — and the player that scored it — are to their success.
"He's really good at communicating to me what I need to improve," freshman winger Chris Kreider, linemate of Smith said of the Avon, Conn., native. "He knows how to let me know what I'm doing wrong in a constructive manner. He certainly knows what he's talking about. He leads by example, too.
"He's a great senior leader. He's looked up to by the entire community."
Smith didn't earn his credibility with the Eagles' underclassmen by scoring big goals or making big plays. They respect their assistant captain because they know that after experiencing the highest of the highs as a sophomore, he turned a junior-year low into a teaching moment. After playing alongside Nathan Gerbe in 2007-08 and picking up 25 goals and 25 assists, 2008-09, Smith's junior year, didn't end as he'd hoped.
"[Junior year] was obviously a tough year. Sophomore year the ultimate high," Smith said. "You try not to get too high. It was just a series of bad luck. I played through some injuries. Don't like to make excuses, but it held me back a little bit. It wasn't quite the year I wanted to have coming off a great year."
The Eagles failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, and Smith's point total diminished from 50 to 17. There were injuries and surgery when the season ended, and he returned for the 2009-10 season with an "A" on his jersey, and a few personal goals.
In January, BC coach Jerry York wedged Smith between Kreider and Jimmy Hayes. The scoring output began immediately. Even as BC's de facto No. 1 line of Joe Whitney, Brian Gibbons and Cam Atkinson drew the headlines, BC's No. 2 line kept pace and added to the depth that transformed the Eagles from a good Hockey East team to a team one win away from a national championship.
Beyond the mentorship he's shown to all of the Eagles underclassmen, Smith's personal transformation from Nathan Gerbe's finisher to a complete player showed Kreider, Hayes and the rest of Eagles younger players that they're never good enough.
"He gives a ton of energy, focus and skill to his game," Hayes said of Smith.
"He showed me this year that I need to be consistent, more consistent. I've been trying to get that into my game. He's helped me a ton. When I got paired up with him and [Kreider], it didn't take long to learn that they were both great to play with."
As a team, the Eagles ability to score goals and test defenses in several ways propelled them to this point. The pairing of Whitney, Atkinson and Gibbons stretches defenses and excels at creating passing sequences off the rush and in transition. While Smith's trio can work pucks around the zone, and breaks defenses down methodically. Smith more than any other play demonstrates the Eagles flexibility as team with his own personal versatility.
In his career, he's been probably most notable for wrist shots from the high slot or one-timers from the circle served perfectly by gifted playmakers like Gerbe and Gibbons. Thursday night, though, Smith put the team before himself. He found a seam, skated into the traffic and gave his team a lead. The 34,954 in attendance may have forgotten about it by the end of the night. Smith's teammates, however, did not.
"It's unbelievable. A guy like him, standing in front of the net and scoring goals like that just rubs off completely on our team," Hayes, who scored a goal himself in the win, said. "Younger guys like myself and the freshmen are going hard to the net because we all know that if someone like Ben Smith is going to do it then we're all going to do it."
Hayes saw another example of Smith's poise late in the game when he capped the Eagles' scoring by banging a rebound past Miami goaltender Cody Reichard, who replaced Knapp after the Eagles made it 3-0.
It's clear at this point — as if it wasn't after a 9-7 win over Yale in the Northeast Regional final — that the Eagles can score with anybody. From what Wisconsin showed the world earlier, the Badgers can score a goal or two themselves. Despite the lopsided wins in national semifinals, Smith doesn't expect a six-goal win for either side on Saturday,
"I think it's going to be a lower-scoring affair," Smith said. "It's going to be tight. Wisconsin has an unbelievable team and great defensemen. They're big and strong. I was watching the first game, and they have some forwards that can really make plays."
Whether it's a 9-7 game like BC played to earn its place at Ford Field or a the struggle he expects, Smith's capable of excelling. He may not have been four years ago, but he showed on Thursday that he can do the job any way he has to. The younger Eagles like Hayes and Kreider can too at this point, and they can thank Ben for that.