Throwback Thursday: Ben Smith becomes a playoff hero

The rookie delivered when the Hawks needed it most

It’s part three of our 10-week Throwback Thursday series, counting down to the Hawks’ home opener on Thursday, October 5. Up next: the 2010-11 season and the biggest goal of Ben Smith’s Blackhawks’ career.

As magical as the 2009-10 season was for the Blackhawks, the ensuing salary cap purge and 2010-11 season rested at the opposite end of the hockey spectrum. By March, the Hawks were in a dogfight just to make the postseason, and only a Dallas Stars loss on the final day of the season (which led to one of the best hockey GIFs ever) saved Chicago from missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs altogether. The opponent? Of course, it was the 2010-11 President Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks.

Vancouver was ready to exorcise its Chicago demons, too, jumping out to a quick 3-0 lead over the team that had ended its last two seasons with playoff defeats.

Then something changed.

Was it just the return of Dave Bolland? Probably not. Perhaps it was the Hawks’ way of reacting to the Raffi Torres cheap shot on Brent Seabrook in Game 3. But something seemed different once No. 36 got back on the ice for Game 4. And before we dive deeper into the Game 6 that is the focus of this article, I want to take a moment and appreciate what happened in Games 4 and 5: the ardent, absolute destruction of what had been a supremely confident Canucks squad.

The scores are lopsided, of course, with the Hawks winning by margins of 7-2 and then 5-0. But even those figures don’t quite tell the story. It’s like you could see the moments in each game when the Canucks lost their collective minds. In Game 4, two goals in #17Seconds (seriously) of the second period did the trick. The Hawks led just 3-1 at that point but Vancouver spent the game’s remaining 35 minutes imploding.

In Game 5, it was the first goal. Marian Hossa scored on Robert Luongo with a weak wrist shot about six minutes in, and the Canucks never recovered. If you have access to this game, watch the first 25 minutes (or check the highlights here). The Hawks scored all five goals in that span, and it’s largely because of an incredible hockey display from Duncan Keith. He was everywhere, scoring two goals and assisting on two more as the Hawks won another blowout. It’s vintage Keith.

That set up Game 6 at the United Center.

A big shock arrived at the pregame skate when Corey Schneider took the ice for Vancouver, confirming that the Hawks had broken Luongo in Games 4 and 5, relegating him to a backup role. Once the game started, Bolland became the story, with starring roles in the Hawks’ first two tallies. He obliterated Dan Hamhuis just before the first goal, setting up a Bryan Bickell score. Then he buried a one-timer in the second period after Schneider misplayed the puck, handing it to Patrick Kane. I don’t recommend that strategy.

Vancouver regained the lead early in the third, but Michael Frolik tied it up with some of his penalty shot heroics. No, not that one. This one. It tied the game up and injured Schneider, bringing the embattled Luongo out of the locker room and into a potential elimination game.

The Canucks seemed like they couldn’t trust Luongo to make any saves, so they accounted for that by smothering the Hawks for the rest of the third period and most of overtime. Vancouver had 22 of its 35 shots on Corey Crawford in the third period and overtime. The Hawks looked like a team that had barely made a playoffs for the first 15 minutes of overtime.

The game-winner

As the clock ticked under under five minutes, Marian Hossa got ahold of the puck in the neutral zone and carried it into Vancouver’s end. In one of those vaunted “The puck is mine and you can’t have it” Hossa moments, he maintained possession for about 10 seconds before handing off to Niklas Hjalmarsson at the point. Hjammer fired on net, prompting an awkward save from Luongo, who sprawled out on his chest after the save. With the goalie down on the ice, all Ben Smith had to do was lift the puck.

No problem.

It was just the 12th NHL game of Smith’s career, including all six of that series. He’d scored twice in Game 2 of that series, but I imagine this one goal game is a bit more vivid in his memories.

We all know how this series ended, unfortunately for the Hawks. But this magical end to Game 6 along with the back-to-back beatdowns handed out in Games 4 and 5 of this series make it hard for me to forget this incredible three-game stretch of Hawks hockey.

Oh, hey ... how’d that postseason end, Vancouver?