It was a great weekend in college hockey, especially for those in Oxford, Ohio. The Miami University hockey team, coming off a major slide of five straight losses, had enjoyed two win Fairbanks, Alaska before welcoming the Michigan team for a big weekend of CCHA hockey. With the Redhawks trying to get back into the playoff race after that slump, being able to upset the #4 ranked Michigan team would go a long ways towards righting the ship.
The Redhawks were able to use their physical game to really knock the Wolverines around on Friday night and skated away with a big 2-1 upset win. Heading into the second game, there was a buzz around this team that perhaps two straight wins were possible and a team that had been reeling was suddenly feeling confident in themselves, backed by a loud and boisterous home crowd.
I had the chance to attend the Saturday night game and it turned out to be one of the best hockey games I've ever seen in person. The atmosphere was incredible and the hockey was even better -- I walked away feeling as if college hockey was something every single fan of the sport should find any and every way to attend just once. It really was a great experience.
The reason for the trip was to be able to see Reilly Smith, a top prospect in the Dallas Stars system, and to get the chance to really scout him live. The Redhawks also have Stars prospect Curtis McKenzie on the team and I was excited to get the chance to see both of them live.
Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was getting the chance to have an extended talk with Reilly Smith, which is being presented as a special episode of our Stargazing podcast this week. A link to the show, as well as my thoughts on Smith and McKenzie from the game, after the jump.
You can listen to the full interview with Reilly Smith here. The episode is also available to download from our show page on iTunes.
Before I get into my specific thoughts on both players, it's important to remember that this is based on just one game -- a rivalry game at home, at that. It's impossible to get a clear picture of a player based solely on one performance, but I sure got one hell of a performance with which to build my initial thoughts on.
I didn't pay as much attention to the Redhawks in general as I did to the individual play of Smith and McKenzie, but it was obvious that Michigan was a bigger and more talented team. The Wolverines jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and it seemed as if all the good feelings from the first game had evaporated as the Redhawks found it near impossible to get any sort of sustained offensive attack.
Smith, in particular, had a rough first period. With his team struggling you could see that he was trying a bit too hard out on the ice and he committed two turnovers, both of which led directly to the goals against. The turnovers weren't from mental mistakes so much as they were just bad plays -- trying to clear the puck up the middle or getting overextended with the puck going through neutral ice and turning it over.
After being outshot 13-12 in the first period, Miami outshot the Wolverines by a 26-11 margin in the second and third periods. Leading this offensive charge was Reilly Smith, who took the team on his back and led an incredible comeback over the final 40 minutes of hockey.
Smith opened the scoring with a hard wrist shot right off the faceoff in the second period. The third period was more of the same, as Smith and the Redhawks' top line put all sorts of pressure on the Wolverines for most of the final 20 minutes of play. Smith was able to steal a puck coming across the middle and get back into the offensive zone, setting up linemate Austin Czarnik for the tying goal.
Smith then got the go-ahead goal with a nifty one-timer on the power play. He would finish the game with nine shots, two goals and an assist.
The Wolverines would come back and tie the game before the Redhawks would win in the fourth round of a shootout. Smith missed on his opportunity, trying the Forsberg move in the shootout.
Specific thoughts about each player:
The biggest knock on Reilly Smith since being drafted was his size. Just 6-0, 160 when he was drafted in the third round in 2009, he's put on plenty of size to allow him the opportunity to compete at a higher level. While he's obviously a smaller player out on the ice he's not extraordinarily small -- he told me after the game that right now he's playing about about 185.
What really stood out to me and something I wasn't expecting, was how Smith is not afraid to play physical. He showed a willingness to crash the boards on the forecheck and create multiple chances with passes from the edge. He was aggressive with the puck, really pushing the play up the ice with speed and while he certainly knows how to handle the puck, he doesn't create chances with a bunch of nifty moves with the stick -- it's all speed and momentum and an ability to get the puck on net.
He actually reminded me a lot of James Neal, with the exception of size. Smith knows how to get the puck on net and he'll do so from anywhere on the ice. He has a nose for goal scoring and it's obvious that when he gets rolling, he can really get on a scoring streak.
Far from just an offensive player, Smith was a major part of his team's penalty kill and showed good defensive instincts. He told me that one reason he chose to go to the NCAA was to be able to hone his defensive game and become a well rounded forward, not just someone who scores goals. While he was always willing and ready to head up the ice for a breakaway, he never shied away from playing defensively and was overall impressive in that aspect of his game.
He's got great skating ability and balance and while his hands aren't the best, he possesses an exceptionally quick release with a hard shot. He knows how to score goals and he has incredible offensive instincts.
There wasn't much negative to note after this game, other than the turnovers in the first period were a bit troubling. It's obvious, however, that because of how he plays and his aggressiveness with the puck that he's going to give the puck away at times. He was also knocked off the puck at times, although he has acknowledged that he has a lot of strength to build up in order to move on to the next level.
Smith is the best player on his team right now and much of the offensive pressure rests on his shoulders. He's just a junior and he's still learning how to be a leader on a hockey but it was obvious -- especially there in the second period -- that he has the ability to carry his team forward if needed.
I had the chance to briefly talk to his coach after the game and he acknowledged he's becoming one of the leaders on the team, although they have to "kick him into gear sometimes."
Stars fans should be excited about Smith, who will likely play one more year at Miami before moving on to become pro. He should be a Hobey Baker finalist this year and will likely be a favorite next season as well. There's a bright future ahead for him.
Curtis McKenzie is different than Smith in nearly every single way.
He's a big player with good hands, who knows how to get physical and loves to crash the net. Nearly every offensive rush McKenzie would find his way to the front of the net and created several prime chances with a deflection or a screen.
He uses his body very well in shielding the puck and was able to get sustained offensive pressure by picking the puck off the boards and moving it to the slot, while using his size to shield defenders. He's smart defensively and has a nose for getting the puck toward the net, but he's far from an offensive powerhouse.
McKenzie right now, as a junior, projects to be a decent player at the AHL level. He just doesn't have the hands or skill to be able to put up numbers at the pro level but he has great instincts and size, allowing him to be a hard working forward who knows how to compliment those that can put the puck on net.
All in all it was a great experience and I wish I had more time to write about Smith and his potential for this franchise. There will likely be an article in the future about the college prospects in general, especially considering how they tend to fly under the radar a bit.
I haven't had the chance to mention Alex Guptill yet, who plays for Michigan. He's a true freshman with a lot of work to do, but he's a very large left winger with good hands who has shown the ability to score goals in limited minutes (7 pts in 12 games).
The Stars have a bright future ahead of them and right at the heart of that future is Reilly Smith. There's still a long ways to go before we see him in a Stars jersey, but I'm excited about what's to come.