DETROIT – The championship belt sat on the bench in the visitors’ dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, propped against the wall, plated in faux gold, a wrestling replica. On the front, in black marker on a piece of tape, was the nickname “TAZER.” It had belonged to Jonathan Toews(notes), the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I think just the hard worker …” Smith said Friday night, his voice trailing off as he tried to explain the belt’s significance. He seemed stumped. He was a 22-year-old rookie, called up from the minors just two days before.
Smith turned to an equipment man.
“You want to help me out on that one?” he asked.
“No,” the man said, without looking up as he packed a bag. “New guy. Played well.”
Let me explain: The belt is like a lot of locker-room symbols in sports – hard hats, lunch boxes, hammers, whatever – that teams use to recognize blue-collar effort, and Toews didn’t award it to Smith simply because the kid scored his first NHL goal in his fifth NHL game, a 4-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, aren’t ready to give up their belt just yet and are wrestling for a playoff spot. They needed to win Friday night to ensure they could clinch a berth in Sunday’s season finale against these same Red Wings.
Ben Smith doesn’t replace the Ben Eagers, Dustin Byfugliens and other critical role players the Blackhawks lost in their offseason salary-cap purge. But at least for one game, he brought their spirit – humble, hungry and hardworking. All the Blackhawks brought it, from the new guy to the big guns.
“We saw what we can do tonight when we play hard,” Toews said. “We can do that to all the best teams in this league, so it doesn’t matter who we play [in the first round]. But we’re not looking forward to the playoffs yet. We’ve still got one more on Sunday.”
It has been an epic 81 games for the ’Hawks. Missing 10 men from their Cup team, they have been trying to find the right combination of players to support their core, while taking their opponents’ best shots night after night and dealing with injuries.
On Wednesday night, the season looked like it might slip away. The Blackhawks gave up a goal just 17 seconds into a game against the St. Louis Blues, a team already eliminated from playoff contention. They fell behind 2-0. They needed a controversial goal to spark a 4-3 victory, with Toews scoring the winner in overtime to earn the belt.
That wasn’t going to happen again Friday night. The Blackhawks had an obvious energy at the morning skate, in warm-ups, in the dressing room.
“It was an important game, and you could sense a different type of approach going into the game,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “The meaning was there. It’s been there all year, but it just seems the urgency was in the guys’ faces. The first shift exemplified that.”
This time the Blackhawks struck quickly. Marian Hossa(notes), the star sniper, picked off the puck along the boards. Patrick Sharp(notes), the ’Hawks’ leading scorer, playing his second game on a sore left knee, fired a pass across the slot. Brent Seabrook(notes), sneaking in from the point, one-timed the puck into the net 27 seconds into the game.
Then Patrick Kane(notes) swiped the puck off a Wing’s stick, and Smith, in alone, buried a shot at 6:07. Then the Blackhawks won a battle behind the net, and Brian Campbell(notes) stickhandled around the goaltender at 8:45. Just like that, Chicago led 3-0.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock called time out. It’s important to note that the Red Wings were as bad as the Blackhawks were good. Having clinched the Central Division, the Wings were playing only to move up from third to second in the Western Conference. They weren’t playing for their playoff lives. They weren’t desperate. They were outshot 10-1 before Pavel Datsyuk(notes) got credit for a shot even though he missed the net. Maybe the official scorer felt sorry for them. They were lazy and sloppy and booed off the ice after the first period.
But that doesn’t diminish what the Blackhawks did, Hossa giving them a 4-0 lead before they allowed a couple of goals. The ’Hawks no longer have their old depth. But they still have a lot of talent, and they still can win impressively when they make the most of it.
And then there was Smith, cutting to the net, protecting the puck, playing with the confidence of a veteran – even pitching in on the penalty kill. He might be green. He might be only 5-foot-11, 205 pounds. He might have an anonymous name. But he knows how to win. At this time last year, he was leading Boston College to a national championship – named the most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament.
“He works hard,” Toews said. “He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he’s strong and he’s feisty. He proved tonight he’s not going to back away from anything.”
So did the Blackhawks.
As for the belt and its significance, Toews said Smith “figured it out pretty quick.” But it didn’t go to Smith’s head. After most of the dressing room had cleared out, Smith grabbed his own equipment bag, slung it over his shoulder and carried it out into the hallway himself, headed for another big game Sunday and maybe more.
- The Blackhawks