CHICAGO -- Ben Smith has a track record for being clutch in the playoffs.
He did it first while at Boston College. He helped the Eagles to three Frozen Four appearances and two national championships in four years. He was the most valuable player of the Frozen Four his senior season.
Smith was even called upon last season to fill in for Marian Hossa in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals despite having played in just one regular season game.
Smith can't explain why he's played well in the playoffs throughout his career, but he links it to the big-game pressure and the arrival of spring.
"I don't know," Smith said after a recent practice. "I just think it's enjoying the pressure, enjoying playoff hockey. When the weather gets a bit warmer, you always feel that kind of energy, that playoff energy. Just trying to simplify, get to the net and that kind of grind-it-out style might benefit me going to the net hard and making simple plays.
"You never know what's going to happen, but it's been nice to have had that experience in the past having some success in the playoffs and being able to draw from it."
Unlike Smith's last NHL playoff appearance, he will be entering this season's playoffs having played a full season with the Blackhawks. He made the team out of training in September, had to fight early in the season for ice time and eventually became an everyday player.
Smith played a majority of the season in a defensive role on the fourth line with Brandon Bollig and Marcus Kruger, but he's also been given a top-6 forward role at times. He finished the regular season with 14 goals, 12 assists and a plus-2 rating in 75 games.
"For me, it's been a nice year having been up here all season and to be able to contribute as I have," Smith said. "There's a lot riding on what's next here. We're taking it day by day and just trying to help this team win however I can. It's certainly an exciting time of the year."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's confidence has grown in Smith throughout the season. Smith's minutes have increased as the season has progressed, and he was even placed as the second-line center alongside Patrick Kane during one stretch.
"We're comfortable with Benny's game," Quenneville said. "He's one of those that approaches every day like he wants to be good, improve his game. He's never satisfied. He's always looking for more based on how he's competing, how he prepares.
"He's a great young kid coming into the league that has a lot of enthusiasm and does everything he can on a game-to-game, shift-to-shift basis where he earns more, deserves more. He had one of those years he just got better. I'm sure he's excited about where his game is and where he's at right now."
Smith has been getting into his playoff form in recent weeks. He scored goals in four of the Blackhawks' past six games.
"That felt good," Smith said. "Obviously we dropped a couple games there at the end which weren't our best games. Creating some momentum, it was nice to get a few and have some confidence around the net here going into the playoffs."
As for his reputation as big-game player, Smith shrugs it off.
"I don't really think of it that way," Smith said. "I just go out and try to work hard and play my game and hope for good results."
Carruth, 22, played for the IceHogs and the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye and Florida Everblades this season. He had a 2-2-1 record with a 3.36 goals-against average and .880 save percentage in seven game for the IceHogs. He was 8-15-0 with a 3.36 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in 25 games for the Walleye and 2-4-1 with a 3.45 goals-against average and .874 save percentage with the Everblades.
Carruth was selected by the Blackhawks in the seventh round of the 2010 draft. He played in the Western Hockey League from 2009-2010.
The Blackhawks are now carrying three goaltenders, which also includes Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta.
CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell has come to better understand over the years why he has success or why he struggles at times.
Often, Bickell can pinpoint the primary factor being his confidence. If he's confident, he's normally playing well. If he lacks it, his play pays the price.
Bickell was among the team's leaders in possession over the past six games after he returned from an injury in early April. He had a 64.3 Corsi percentage (the Blackhawks had 74 shots for and 41 against when he was on the ice) in the past six games. He also had one goal, two assists and 14 shots on goal during that span.
Another important ingredient for Bickell's confidence has been Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville showing his own belief in him. Bickell averaged nearly 12 minutes a game in April.
"I'm just getting confident," Bickell said after a recent practice. "[Quenneville's] getting more confident in me to put me in different situations and me getting confident in myself to play good. I think confidence is one of my things I've been trying to work on in my career. There have been ups and downs. To have confidence now going into the playoffs is important."
A slow start to the regular season first and then a knee injury negatively impacted Bickell's confidence for stretches of the regular season. He had a couple of positive swings, including scoring in four consecutive games in late October, but he wasn't able to consistently play at that level. In January, he had one point and a minus-7 rating in 12 games. Quenneville even made him a healthy scratch for a game.
Bickell began improving his play when the Blackhawks returned from the Olympic break. He scored in two of the first four games, and Quenneville increased his minutes again. Bickell was derailed again when he suffered an upper-body injury against the St. Louis Blues on March 19 and missed six games, but he found his form again quickly in his return.
Now as the Blackhawks open the playoffs against the Blues on Thursday, Bickell hopes that confidence will lead to similar results he had last season, where he had 17 points, including nine goals during their Stanley Cup run. He scored in nine different playoff games, including Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals when he had the game-tying goal in the third period against the Boston Bruins.
Here are some of the top stats to know as the Quest for the Cup gets underway.
• The Blackhawks led the NHL in goals during the 2013-14 regular season with 267, but recent history suggests that the Stanley Cup won’t make its way back to Chicago. The team that has led the NHL in goals during the regular season has not won the Stanley Cup since the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins (led NHL with 343 goals that season).
Since the 2002-03 season, six defending Cup Champions have lost in the first Round (previously called Conference Quarterfinals) of the playoffs and a seventh missed the playoffs entirely (Carolina Hurricanes in 2006-07).
• The Penguins have eight players on their roster with at least 80 games of playoff experience. Only two Columbus Blue Jackets players have played more than 30 career postseason games (Nathan Horton with 43 & Brandon Dubinsky with 31).
The league’s leading scorer during the regular season was Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby with 104 points. Since the 1987-88 season, only three players have led the league in scoring and won a Stanley Cup in the same campaign, two of which played for Pittsburgh.
• The Boston Bruins won the 2013-14 Presidents’ Trophy, the second time that they have claimed that award (other time was in 1989-90).
Since the Presidents’ Trophy was first awarded in 1985-86, eight teams have won it and the Stanley Cup in the same season. However, the Blackhawks won both trophies last season.
On the flip side, six Presidents’ Trophy winners have been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including the Vancouver Canucks last season.
• The Montreal Canadiens are the only Canadian-based franchise in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It is the first time since 1973 that just one Canadian team made the playoffs. That year, the Canadiens were that lone Canadian representative as well and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
In addition, it has been 21 years since a Canadian-based team last won the Stanley Cup (Montreal beating the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 Cup Final). Since then, Canadian teams have reached and lost in the Cup Final five times, with four of those series going the full seven games.
• The Red Wings are making their 23rd consecutive postseason appearance, the longest active streak of its kind in the four major professional sports.
• Three teams are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after long absences. The Dallas Stars are making their first appearance since 2008, the Columbus Blue Jackets are back for the first time since 2009, and the Colorado Avalanche are back in the postseason for the first time since 2010.
1. Los Angeles Kings
Team save percentage: .922
Short-handed save percentage: .879
Jonathan Quick career playoff save percentage: .929 (50 games)
The Kings are a near-perfectly constructed team up front and on defense, but it’s Quick who puts them over the top in comparisons to the Sharks and other Western Conference contenders. He’s a competitor with a Stanley Cup and loads of playoff experience, and he now has Olympic experience on his résumé. There’s not a better goalie to have on your side at the outset of the playoffs.
“With Quick in goal, they’ve probably got the most complete team in the NHL,” said a veteran scout.
2. Boston Bruins
Team save percentage: .928 (No. 1)
Short-handed save percentage: .884
Tuukka Rask career playoff save percentage: .930 (35 games)
If the Bruins won the Stanley Cup last spring, Rask would've been in the Conn Smythe conversation with Patrice Bergeron after finishing the playoffs with a league-best .940 save percentage.
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It is impossible to overstate the importance of goaltending during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Deep runs into the postseason can be made on the back of a hot goalie, while a struggling netminder can cost even the best team a shot at raising the Cup.
The impact of goalies on postseason success has been as evident as ever over the past three years. In that time, two goalies won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP -- the Boston Bruins' Tim Thomas (2011) and the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick (2012) -- while last year's champion, the Chicago Blackhawks, received incredible goaltending from Corey Crawford, who finished the playoffs with a .932 save percentage. On the other side of the coin, the poor play of the New York Islanders' Evgeni Nabokov and the Montreal Canadiens' Carey Price cost their clubs the chance to advance to the second round last postseason.
Who will stand out this year and help carry his team in Round 1?
For this, we once again turn to the Goalie Heat Index -- a statistical forecast of how goalies will perform in the postseason. Over the past dozen postseason campaigns, the best performance indicators -- in order of diminishing importance -- have been: career playoff save percentage, current regular-season save percentage and current regular-season shots on goal against (SOGA). This measure has worked to predict breakout postseason performances by unlikely playoff standouts such as Antti Niemi, Jaroslav Halak, Braden Holtby and Mike Smith.
Here is a look at which goalies figure to get hot in 2014:
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks did something Tuesday they haven't been able to do for almost a month.
They practiced as a full team. All 15 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders were healthy and participated in the hour-long practice at Johnny's IceHouse West.
"I thought, at least for me being out there the first time, the pace was pretty high -- seems like everyone's excited about what's going to happen here going forward here in the playoffs," Kane said. "It was nice to get out there, skate with the team in a real practice, and even nicer to have one [Wednesday]."
With everyone on the ice, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville unveiled his probable lines to begin the playoffs, and there were some changes.
Quenneville placed Kris Versteeg, Toews and Brandon Saad together on the top line. Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa skated together on the second line. Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Kane comprised the third line. Quenneville stuck with his usual fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith.
Sharp, Toews and Hossa played together on a line for a bulk of the season, and Kane was mostly on the second line. Versteeg and Saad have bounced everywhere from the first to third lines this season.
Quenneville said he is looking for balance in the four lines.
"I thought all the lines have comparable ingredients with the ability to score and play without the puck, as well," Quenneville said. "We also had that continuity of at least a couple of guys who are familiar with one another. Whether you revert back or you like the matchup, even in the course of the game, you can always move one or two guys around without really rearranging too much; having that flexibility, and some guys can play both sides and go in the middle, as well. Every game would be different, but right now you like the balance."
Kane has played with Shaw and Bickell before. Kane and Bickell shared a line for much of the playoffs last season and were both essential to the team's Stanley Cup run.
Kane believes that even though Bickell and Shaw are physical players and could give him protection against the St. Louis Blues, they also need to stick to their games.
"To be honest with you, I think playing with them two guys, you want to make sure you're matching their work ethic because they're always going to be working hard," Kane said. "At the same time, we want to play smart, play good defensively, make sure we're not giving anything up.
"Sometimes you go into a series and you think a little too much about the physical play or what's going to happen and it throws you off. I think for us, we've just got to go out there, play hockey the way we know how to play, and not worry about all that other stuff, whether it happens after the whistle or during the play. I think in the past we've maybe gotten caught up in that a little bit."
Quenneville is optimistic that the line of Versteeg, Toews and Saad can be productive for the Blackhawks.
"We feel [Saad is] capable of playing against top guys," Quenneville said. "He's played with Jonny a lot the last couple years. [Versteeg] as well has played in some big situations. We'll see how that all works out -- certainly has the capability of working well together. [Versteeg] did play a little bit with [Toews and Saad] there recently. That line looked pretty good together."
Morin was disappointed not to be among the team's top four lines during practice at Johnny's IceHouse West on Tuesday, but he is hopeful coach Joel Quenneville will consider him in the coming weeks based on his recent play.
"Obviously you want to be in the lineup, but honestly I can say I'm really excited to be here and just be a part of it," Morin said after practice. "I've never experienced playoffs before in pro hockey. I'm just really excited to be here and be around the guys. Anything I can do, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to be here.
"That's all I can try to do with the time I had, prove I can contribute in some way. Hopefully I put myself in an opportunity to get some time at some point, but I'm really excited to be here and looking forward to it."
Morin made his case for ice time over the past six games. Since being a healthy scratch on March 30, Morin responded with four goals and two assists over the final six games of the regular season.
Morin's possession numbers were also among the team's best during that period. He had a 66.2 Corsi percentage (the Blackhawks had 80 shots for, 41 against when he was on the ice) during the past six games. He didn't have a Corsi percentage lower than 57.1 in a given game during that span.
Quenneville spoke positively about Morin's recent play and left the door open to him playing at some point in the playoffs.
"I think [Morin] at the end of the year, he gave us some energy," Quenneville said. "He scored some big goals for us down the road. We'll see how that all works out."
Morin is on his fourth stint with the Blackhawks this season. He was last recalled from the Rockford IceHogs on March 21. He has six goals and six assists in 23 games in the NHL this season.
Morin believes his recent success improved his confidence, and he'll be ready if Quenneville chooses to play him in the playoffs.
"I think that helped out my confidence a bit, being able to contribute the last five games or whatever it was and have some success. If my name does get called, I'll be ready to play, bring some energy, but those games probably helped out with my confidence.
"I just need to stay ready, you never know what can happen. Obviously, I've been looking forward to being here and if my name is ever called, I'll be ready."
Blackhawks forward Ben Smith can attest to the fact anything can happen in the playoffs. He played in one regular-season game last season and found himself replacing Marian Hossa in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals due to an injury.
"That's what they tell you all along is to be ready," Smith said. "You never know what happens here with injuries. Hopefully we don't have any, but for [Morin] and everyone that is where I was last year, always be ready, always be prepared, stay in shape and do what you have to do, so you can step right in and try to contribute."
Bryan Bickell, forward
The Blackhawks don't likely win the Stanley Cup without Bickell's emergence in the playoffs last season. He had an ordinary regular season with nine goals and 14 assists in 48 games last season. In the playoffs, he was a different player. With nine playoffs goals, he accounted for 14 percent of the Blackhawks' scoring during their Cup run. He was also second on the team with 17 points and second with a plus-12 rating. More was expected of Bickell this regular season after his playoff performance and a new contract, but he was deterred by a slow start and a knee injury. He finished with 11 goals, four assists and a minus-6 rating in 59 games. His play has improved in the past month. He's had a Corsi percentage (shots for vs. shots against) of 56.5 percent or higher in nine of his past 10 games, according to extraskater.com. He's also had three or more shots on goal in four of the past seven games.
Nick Leddy, defenseman
Leddy had a rough go in the playoffs last season. He had zero goals, two assists and a minus-8 rating in 23 playoff games. He fell out of favor with Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville late in the Stanley Cup finals and played just 2:37, 6:53 and 3:25 in the final three games of the series. He regained Quenneville's faith this season. He had seven goals, 24 assists, a plus-10 rating and averaged 16:22 of ice time in 82 games. He's also had a 57.1 Corsi percentage. He'll likely be paired with Michal Rozsival in the playoffs again.
Michal Rozsival, defenseman
Rozsival was in and out of the lineup throughout the regular season and was a permanent fixture in the playoffs last season. That likely will be the case again this season. The Blackhawks now hope he can be as consistent as he was in the playoffs last season. Among the players who played 20-plus playoff games last season, he was fifth on the team with a 57.4 Corsi percentage (Blackhawks had 382 shots for, 284 against when he was on the ice) in 5-on-5 situations. He averaged 19:16 of ice time during the playoffs. This season Rozsival has played in 42 games. Between an injury and additional rest, he's played in nine games since he returned from the Olympics. He hasn't played more than two consecutive games since prior to the Olympic break and has played in more than two consecutive games during just two spans this season. He has been solid when he's played this season. He has a 58.8 Corsi (620 shots for, 435 shots against), which is 2.7 percent higher than when he's not on the ice.
Brandon Saad, forward
Not much was expected of Saad in the playoffs last season because he was still a rookie. From a possession standpoint, he held his own. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 situations in the playoffs, the Blackhawks had 330 shots for and 207 against. But he didn't produce much, with one goal, five assists and a minus-1 rating in 23 playoff games. A season later, the Blackhawks need Saad to be better than that. He was often a key contributor to the Blackhawks throughout this season. He was sixth on the team with 40 points, which included 19 goals. To produce in the playoffs, he's going to need to find more consistency to his game than what he's provided lately. Since suffering an injury in mid-March, he hasn't scored in the past 10 games and had a minus-9 rating during that span. His possession numbers have also dropped. He's had a 60 Corsi percentage or higher in 30 games this season, and 28 of those occurred prior to his injury.
Ben Smith, forward
Smith was recalled at the end of last season and got into one playoff game -- Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals -- when Marian Hossa was scratched due to an injury. Smith will have a much larger role this season. Of the Blackhawks' fourth-line players, Smith is the one who provides the most consistent offense. He's seventh on the team with 14 goals and is riding a hot streak into the playoffs. He's scored goals in four of the past six games. He'll also continue to be relied upon defensively. His shifts have started 47.5 percent of the time in the defensive zone. Smith has excelled in the postseason before; he helped Boston College to two NCAA titles, and he had three goals in seven games for the Blackhawks in the 2011 playoffs.
Kris Versteeg, forward
The Blackhawks were hoping Versteeg could be the same player he was for them the last time around when they traded for him in November. That hasn't been the case. He's had positive spurts, but he's also been inconsistent. He admitted he came back from his knee injury too soon and will need another offseason to strengthen it to be closer to his old self. Since the Olympic break, he's had three goals and five assists. His possession numbers have also varied since the break. He's had 15 games with a Corsi percentage of above 50 percent and eight games below. Traditionally, he has played well in the postseason, with 14 goals, 23 assists and a plus-2 rating in 57 career playoff games.
1. St. Louis Blues
Goals against per game (GA/G): 2.29 (No. 3)
Penalty kill (PK): 85.7 percent (No. 2)
Points from defensemen: 182
Shots against per game (SA/G): 26.4
A full season together for Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester gives the Blues a legitimate shutdown pair that was still figuring out how to play together when the playoffs arrived last spring. Pietrangelo has had a season worthy of Norris Trophy consideration. The duo is still a little light on playoff experience, which is a concern; the two have played a total of 20 postseason games, or 18 fewer than Kings defenseman Slava Voynov.
Having those two and trusted veterans like Barret Jackman and Roman Polak allows coach Ken Hitchcock to get favorable matchups for Kevin Shattenkirk, a talented offensive defenseman who consistently puts up St. Louis’ best possession numbers.
2. Los Angeles Kings
GA/G: 2.05 (No. 1)
PK: 83.1 percent (No. 11)
Points from defensemen: 149
The defense has a mix of strong offensive puck movers such as Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Voynov, along with defensive veterans Willie Mitchell, Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene.
Like everything Kings general manager Dean Lombardi builds, this defense was put together with a purpose, and if it remains healthy, it’s as good as any in hockey. Doughty is a game-changer whose puck-retrieval skills and ability to quickly transition to offense should help negate a strong possession team like the San Jose Sharks.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
GA/G: 2.58 (No. 12)
PK: 81.4 percent (No. 19)
Points from defensemen: 193
The one-two punch of pairs Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook along with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya is a huge weapon for coach Joel Quenneville.
Chicago’s second pair can play with any forward line, allowing Quenneville a chance to get Keith and Seabrook on the ice in moments where they can change the game.
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In the current salary-cap era of the NHL, the league has closed the gap between the top-seeded playoff teams and those at the bottom of the postseason list. With parity being the new rule, you could make a Stanley Cup argument for at least half of the postseason participants.
With the talent spread around, it is often matchups that make the difference, but those key matchups are not always easy to spot. One way to uncover them is by looking at the numbers. What numbers are the most telling in each series?
Editor's note: Click here for an explanation on any stats or terms with which you are not familiar.
The Flyers are one of only two teams to make the postseason to have been outscored at even strength this season (Montreal is the other). With referees prone to swallowing their whistles in the playoffs, even-strength play will take on even more importance than usual. With both teams expected to have their full rosters available by Game 1, expect the Rangers to make it very hard for an occasionally explosive Flyers team to get good looks at their net.
Prediction: Rangers dominate 5-on-5 play, win in six
With huge advantages for the Rangers in puck possession and goaltending, it is hard to see the Flyers keeping up when there are five skaters per side. Henrik Lundqvist started the season slowly, but finished strong with a .920 save percentage, and his past two playoff runs have included save percentages over .930. Philadelphia will be forced to rest their hopes on power-play scoring. -- Wagman
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