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updated: 4/10/2014 7:59 PM

Hawks' Smith seeing fruits of his labor

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  • Duncan Keith, left, Ben Smith, center, and Andrew Shaw celebrate after Smith's empty net goal against the Blues on Sunday. It marked the third straight game Smith scored a goal.

      Duncan Keith, left, Ben Smith, center, and Andrew Shaw celebrate after Smith's empty net goal against the Blues on Sunday. It marked the third straight game Smith scored a goal.
    Associated Press

  • Ben Smith celebrates with teammate Marian Hossa (81), after scoring a goal against St. Louis in March. Smith has a career-high 25 points on the season.

      Ben Smith celebrates with teammate Marian Hossa (81), after scoring a goal against St. Louis in March. Smith has a career-high 25 points on the season.
    Associated Press

  • Ben Smith (28), left, and defenseman Michael Kostka (6) celebrate a goal by Marcus Kruger, not shown, against Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (32) and defenseman Matt Greene (2) look on in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Los Angeles, Monday, Feb. 3, 2014.

      Ben Smith (28), left, and defenseman Michael Kostka (6) celebrate a goal by Marcus Kruger, not shown, against Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (32) and defenseman Matt Greene (2) look on in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Los Angeles, Monday, Feb. 3, 2014.
    Associated Press

 
 

Nothing has ever come easy for Ben Smith.

At least when it's come to his professional hockey career, that is.

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For example:

Skating for Rockford just around the time the NHL lockout was ending last year, and with a solid shot to make the Blackhawks roster out of camp after two seasons spent mainly with the IceHogs, Smith, a notoriously low penalty minutes guy, found himself in a scrum in front of the Grand Rapids net as he fought for position.

A cross-check by the Griffins' Brennan Evans led to Smith dropping the gloves and challenging the 6-foot-4 defenseman. It was during that rare fight that Smith injured his thumb and lost any chance of making the Hawks' roster out of training camp.

"Last year was pretty disappointing when I broke my thumb right before the lockout ended," Smith said. "I thought I put myself in a good spot toward making a run at making this team last year.

"But things happen for a reason."

But despite missing 15 games for Rockford with the injury, Smith persevered -- like he's always done -- and he eventually made his way back to Chicago and played in the regular-season finale and even found himself in the lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final in Boston.

"Somehow, some way I ended up playing in that last game and being able to be around here for that Stanley Cup run ... it all worked out in the end," he said.

But things didn't get any easier after that, not that Smith would have expected them to anyway.

Fast-forward to the beginning of this season, after three years in Rockford, with occasional call-ups to the big club interspersed, Smith finally made the Hawks out of camp. But his playing time was sporadic at best early on as coach Joel Quenneville juggled things while trying to find just the right combinations.

In the team's first 13 games, Smith didn't dress for seven of them.

Think something like that would faze the hard-working Smith, the Hawks' sixth-round pick (169th overall) in the 2008 draft?

Think again.

"I think it definitely helped me mentally being in Rockford for three years and being hurt -- mentally it made me stronger and tougher," he said. "When things weren't going so well earlier this year it helped me stick with it and keep working.

"It's been paying off and hopefully it continues to pay off."

Eventually, Smith found a home on the fourth line. As the season has progressed, the 25-year-old has been given more and more responsibility by Quenneville, and each time has proven -- not only to his coach but his teammates as well -- that he is more than up to the task.

"He's a player that you can trust in all situations and I'm sure if you ask Q, he's not a guy that he would ever second guess in any situation on the ice," Kris Versteeg said.

"Right now he's getting the minutes, his confidence is high and he keeps going and going and working hard," Andrew Shaw said.

Before being blanked Wednesday against Montreal, Smith had a three-game goal-scoring streak going, one that featured a pair of last-second scores against Minnesota and Columbus, and culminated with an empty-netter against St. Louis on Sunday.

Heading into the final two games of the regular season, Smith now has a career-best 25 points (13 goals) through 73 games.

"He's been getting an opportunity to play more minutes in more of an offensive role and he's a player that you can see has the ability to do it and is just putting it together," Versteeg said.

When you ask Smith to try and describe his career up to this point, all he can do is smile and shake his head a bit.

"Up and down. A lot of highs and lows, but right now it's pretty good -- knock on wood," he said. "I've worked hard and had some obstacles, but that's the way it is.

"It's a tough thing to do, to play at this level and to play here. I wouldn't have had it go any other way."

But despite his recent success, don't expect Smith to get comfortable in any way, shape or form.

"There's still a lot more work to do, a lot more improvement in my game, too," he said. "It's nice, but it's only been one year. A lot can change in this game.

"The challenge is to keep working and keep improving and just try to take it to another level."

His teammates have no doubt he'll do just that, because as Shaw points out:

"Everything he's gotten has come from hard work and dedication to the game."

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