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FORMER ICEHOGS WINGER HELPING HAWKS TO UNLIKELY RUN

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Ben Smith’s overtime winner forces Game 7

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, Ben Smith probably couldn’t have felt any further away from a Chicago sports hero. The first-year winger from Avon, Conn. was continuing his recent string of bad luck and was just trying to get back on the ice with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, let alone trying to crack the Chicago Blackhawks lineup.

Smith, 22, scored the overtime game-winning goal on Sunday night to help Chicago even up their best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series with the Vancouver Canucks at three games a piece with Game 7 slated for Tuesday night in British Columbia.

The rookie winger’s bad luck began, somewhat ironically, during his best game of his young pro career. During Rockford’s 6-0 win over Grand Rapids on Jan. 8, Smith chipped in with three primary assists, his first multi-point game of his pro career.

But Smith would suffer an upper body injury during the third period of the blowout win and was shelved for four games.

Then on Jan. 19 Smith was all but cleared to play in Rockford’s upcoming weekend set at the MetroCentre, when he was put back on the shelf after a shot from assistant coach Steve Poapst got away from him.

Unfortunately for Smith, Poapst shot struck him in the cheek and the rookie winger was forced to miss seven-more games.

After accumulating 2g-4a in the six games before his initial injury, Smith seemed to be grasping the pro game at the AHL level and was beginning to excel. The injury, however, might have been a blessing in disguise as Smith was forced to take a break 35 games into his first pro season which helped preserve himself for the long haul. Smith had never played in more than 44 games in one season at the collegiate level.

Upon returning, it took Smith a bit to regain his scoring touch as he chipped in a pair of goals with an assist over his next 13 games.  Then the breaks started falling the former Boston College standout’s way.

At the NHL trade deadline, the Blackhawks dealt winger Ryan Potulny to the Ottawa Senators for defenseman Chris Campoli. This opened up a spot on Rockford’s top line vacated by the team’s leading goal scorer.

Matched up with Jeff Taffe and Rob Klinkhammer, Smith immediately excelled.  The winger would go on to notch a goal in four-straight games (five tallies overall) and in five of six contests from March 4 through March 13.

Following his second career NHL recall on March 19, which lasted two games, Smith was placed on Rockford’s second line after his return to help provide some depth offensively for the IceHogs.  Smith would end his IceHogs season, and potentially career, scoring 4g-2a in six games. Over his final 18 games in an IceHogs uniform, Smith racked up 11g-2a after accumulating 8g-10a during his first 45 tilts.

After Rockford’s April 5 game in San Antonio, last year’s Frozen Four MVP was recalled to the Blackhawks for a third time in 2010-11 and might be up for good.

Through six playoff games, Smith has now appeared in as many NHL postseason contests as regular season tilts. After scoring two goals in Chicago’s 5-3 Game 2 loss in Vancouver, Smith scored the biggest goal of his young career on Sunday to pull the Blackhawks within one win of NHL playoff history.