Smith's Refinery Makes Gold

After a couple near misses, junior defenseman Brendan Smith decided that the first step to redemption was to dedicate himself in the offseason. His teammates followed his lead and Smith's improved game is reason Wisconsin is two wins away from a national title.

DETROIT - It had only been a couple of hours removed from the program's latest postseason flub when Brendan Smith took stock of himself and his team.

One year after the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team was eliminated in overtime, in their own arena nonetheless, one game short of the Frozen Four, the Badgers fell .0002 points shy of making the 16-team tournament field.

Smith perused the returning roster (seven senior forward, a deep defensive unit and two junior goaltenders) and liked what he saw. When he looked at his scrawny figure in the mirror, he wasn't so thrilled.

"My first two years I struggled with the strength, being pushed around by bigger and stronger guys and I knew that I needed to get stronger," Smith recalled. "If I could improve, I wouldn't get pushed off the puck and it makes my job easier."

Fifteen pound heavier, Smith's job for Wisconsin has never looked better, a main reason the Badgers are in the position to win the school's seventh national championship this weekend at Detroit's Ford Field.

The Badgers face Rochester Institute of Technology today in the 4 p.m. Frozen Four semifinals with the winner advancing to Saturday's championship game against either Boston College or Miami (Ohio).

"That redemption from falling short the past two years is making it that much better," Smith said. "Words can not describe the feeling."

Smith - drafted No. 27 overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and playing mere miles from his future arena - has been one of the many cogs that have made the engine click for Wisconsin (27-10-4).

He leads the nation's defensemen with 15 goals, 47 points and a 1.18 points-per-game average, one of only two defenseman to average over a point a game, all career-high numbers that stemmed from being more physical on the ice.

"The offseason workouts that (Strength Coach) Jim Snider does are phenomenal, and I think that built a lot of confidence in him," UW assistant coach Mark Osiecki. "With strength comes confidence, and that's definitely has become a factor. He has really matured as a hockey player."

The maturity can be seen in Smith's play all season long, but none more so than in his games against teams from Michigan. He had his first multi-goal game and three points in a victory at Michigan State, a career-high four assists in a home win over Michigan Tech and registered two power play goals late in the final period to beat Michigan in front of 55,000 people in Camp Randall.

"He's the backbone of the defense," said senior forward Michael Davies. "The power play would be completely different without him. We wouldn't have won the outdoor hockey game without him. We're lucky to have him lead us to the Frozen Four."

The results can be seen from a national perspective, as well, as Smith was named one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Award - given annually to the best U.S. college player since 1981 – along with senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion. While Geoffrion was named one of the three finalists and will find out Friday if he is the first UW played to ever receiver the award, Smith was on the outside looking in, much to the dismay of his teammates.

"Smitty is a great player," said Geoffrion. "He's going to have a long career ahead of him. He's probably the most skilled guy on the team, most potential and I am real proud of him. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to win awards."

Nevertheless, Wisconsin Coach Mike Eaves made it a point to pull Smith aside for a brief talk, reinforcing to Smith what he means to this team despite the snub.

"On the surface, he was very good about but on the inside, I am sure there is some disappointment of not being included," Eaves said. "In our books, he deserves to be there. If anything, I think it will fuel him to play even better at the Frozen Four to show people that he was a deserving candidate as well."

With the notion was brought up that Smith could end his college career and begin his NHL career in the same city, Smith coyly smiled that life after Wisconsin has not yet entered his mind, but is going to seek input from friends, family and former teammate Jamie McBain who signed last year with Carolina after his junior season.

Would the decision be made easier with a championship ring around his finger?

"Could be," Smith laughed. "Could be."

While Smith feels Geoffrion is a deserving Hobey winner, the junior isn't denying that a little extra motivation compliments of the Hobey committee. With a NHL contract on a back burner and the real possibly that this will be Smith's last weekend in a Wisconsin uniform, Smith wants to leave everyone with a lasting collegiate impression.

"I want to prove and show everybody who I am," Smith said. "I do think I could have been one of those nominees, so maybe I can go out there and show that maybe I am one of the top three and that our team is the best.

"The biggest thing is that even if I was nominated, the Hobey is in my back pocket. The first task is RIT and the second is a national title."

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