Remember the talk in January?
"The Minnesota Wild is weak up the middle."
"Nobody can win a draw."
"Wyatt Smith should not be wearing an NHL uniform."
Three months later, the Wild is gearing up for its first playoff game against the Anaheim Ducks, and nobody is talking about a weakness at the center position. Mikko Koivu enjoyed a breakout sophomore season with 20 goals. The reliable Wes Walz is manning the defensive responsibilites while his Slovakian wingers play hot potato with the puck.
Then there's Todd White and Wyatt Smith. Neither is coming off career regular seasons. White quietly produced at both ends of the ice on a line with Brian Rolston and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Smith wasn't supposed to be here, and he wasn't at the start of the season.
White has been to the playoffs four times with the Ottawa Senators. Smith will make his playoff debut with his home state team as a fourth-liner who has worked overtime to gain the confidence of his head coach. What these two have in common is both realizes how hard it is to get this opportunity.
"It's a tough thing to make the playoffs," said White following the team's practice in Anaheim on Tuesday afternoon. "Younger guys don't realize how tough it is to make it here."
Smith realizes how tough it is. The former Warroad Warrior and Minnesota Gopher had never played more than 42 NHL games in any of his previous six seasons with Phoenix, Nashville and the New York Islanders. He started 2006 in Houston and was called up because of a rash of injuries at the center position. Without a breakout game, Smith played well enough to hang around. Pavol Demitra's shift to wing allowed Smith to find a home on the fourth line. After the Wild acquired center Dominic Moore at the trade deadline, Smith upped the ante again and is playing the best hockey of his career.
"I think I'm in a good place right now," said Smith, who scored two goals in the season finale against St. Louis. "There was a question about me being able to play at the NHL level and I think I answered that a little. And now I'm going into the playoffs where the level will rise even more and I think I can match that and be used as an asset to this team."
If his spike in ice time is an indicator, he will be used plenty by Jacques Lemaire, who has commented on his improved play and rewarded him with more responsibility. In seven of his last 11 games, Smith has played more than 10 minutes with Branko Radivojevic, Derek Boogaard and Stephane Veilleux providing invaluable energy alongside him.
"It's pretty exciting," he said of the upcoming playoffs. "You can just tell there is a buzz in the air and it's pretty neat for me being that I'm from Minnesota and I helped this team get to the playoffs after a four-year absence. When you get to the playoffs, everybody's level rises."
If Smith needs any advice on how to handle that level, he can converse with fellow centerman, White. When the Senators faced the Toronto Maple Leafs, the scrutiny and pressure from the outside rivaled Yankees and Red Sox.
"It was such a big thing in Canada to have province rivals against each other," recalled White. "I think this will be a little different. We feel comfortable with our game and we can get rid of those outside pressures and concentrate on our game."