Hawks face a tough test in Smith

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Hawks face a tough test in Smith

GLENDALE, Ariz. Mike Smiths debut for the Phoenix Coyotes was an inauspicious one.

The goaltender struggled, allowing six goals in the first two periods in the season opener against the San Jose Sharks. Goaltending coach Sean Burke said the Coyotes had a decision to make after those 40 minutes.

We talked about it as coaches: Do we want to take him out? Burke recalled. But we said, Its his first game, and we need to show him right now hes going to be our guy, hes going to play. From that point on he took the ball and ran with it.

That guy who gave up six in his first two periods with Phoenix gave up very, very little in his last five regular-season games. And Smiths renaissance season is a big reason why the Coyotes won the Pacific Division title, their first division championship in franchise history.

When the Chicago Blackhawks face the Coyotes tomorrow, theyll be facing arguably the hottest goaltender in the league right now. In his final five regular-season games, Smith stopped 190 of the 192 shots he saw. For a goaltender whose career stalled in Tampa Bay, Smith is now back at the top of his game.

I dont look at it as him getting hot at the end. Hes been good all year long, Burke said. Obviously the key to his season has been his consistency. When we got him we knew what a great athlete he was, (Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett) had him in Dallas, so there was a confidence factor off the bat there. He came in here looking as a new lease on life and he has taken advantage of it.

Smith gave Burke credit for where he is now.

I dont think Im a lot different (from my Dallas days), Smith said. Consistency-wise, Ive been better this year. I worked hard to gain that, and Burkes been a big part of that. Ive approached every game the same way, and I dont plan to change that now.

It has been a fresh start for Smith, who was traded from the Stars to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the Brad Richards deal in February of 2008. Smith was on his way up at the time, a strong backup to Marty Turco and someone who was pegged to take the No. 1 job in Tampa. But it didnt work out; Smith played part of last season in the minors and was a free agent last summer.

Then the Coyotes called. And given his relationship with Tippett, it was a natural fit.

I know him and his character, Tippett said. I always thought he was going to be a top goaltender, and for whatever reason in Tampa didnt turn out that way. He was hungry from the opportunity, and I thought the relationship with him and Burke could be good. Hes just continued to work on his game, its matured and hes turned into a very good player.

The Blackhawks respect what Smith has done; they also want to get to him early in Game 1 on Thursday.

Hes on a heck of a run, hes had a good season. Thats not surprising to anybody, Patrick Sharp said. Playing with the lead is big so we want to score that first goal. The start is key, but its a 60-minute game. Sometimes its 80 minutes. You just want to make sure youre ready to go.

So is Smith. This is his first chance to be a No. 1 goaltender for a playoff team, and hes ready for the opportunity.

Im thrilled. This is why we play hockey, why were in this position, Smith said. I know from experience last year (with Tampa) that theres no better feeling than playing in the playoffs. In any playoff series you have to have good goaltending. Im just going to do my thing and hopefully its good enough.

Buckeyes going back to College Football Playoff, will face Clemson in Fiesta Bowl

Buckeyes going back to College Football Playoff, will face Clemson in Fiesta Bowl

The College Football Playoff field is set, and for the second time in three years, the Ohio State Buckeyes will compete for a national championship.

The selection committee revealed the four-team field for this season's Playoff, with Ohio State coming at No. 3. The Buckeyes will battle No. 2 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. The other Playoff semifinal pits No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl.

While Ohio State has been considered one of the best teams in the country throughout the season, the Buckeyes' inclusion in the Playoff field is not without controversy, as they are the first team to play in the Playoff without winning their conference championship. But Ohio State had a sterling resume with three wins over top-10 teams: Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. The Buckeyes' lone loss came against a top-10 Penn State team.

The 2014 national champion, Ohio State returns to the Playoff after missing out last season. Big Ten champion Michigan State represented the conference last year, getting crushed by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Two years ago, the Buckeyes beat the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl and then beat the Oregon Ducks in the national championship game.

Big Ten champion Penn State, which won the conference title game Saturday night with an instant-classic comeback victory over Wisconsin, ended up fifth and was left off the bracket. So too was sixth-ranked Michigan, which didn't compete for a conference championship but was ranked fifth in the final set of rankings prior to Sunday's bracket reveal. The Nittany Lions and Wolverines combined for five wins over top-10 teams this season.

There was plenty of conversation that red-hot Penn State could surge into the Playoff, just like Ohio State did two years ago. The Lions are riding a nine-game winning streak, defeated Ohio State earlier in the season and claimed the championship in what has been the hands-down best conference in college football this season. And boy did they impress Saturday night in their most recent showing, erasing a three-touchdown deficit to come back and beat Wisconsin.

Michigan, too, had a mighty compelling case to make. The Wolverines, owners of one of the best defenses in the country all season long, beat three top-10 teams during the regular season and took the No. 2 team in the country to double overtime just last weekend.

But in the end, we did not get the first Playoff field to feature two teams from the same conference. Penn State and Michigan will learn their bowl fates — likely going to New Year's Six bowl games — later Sunday.

Big Ten poll update: Penn State jumps Michigan in last pre-Playoff AP poll

Big Ten poll update: Penn State jumps Michigan in last pre-Playoff AP poll

The College Football Playoff selection committee will reveal the four-team Playoff field shortly, but in the AP poll, Big Ten champion Penn State did vault ahead of Michigan.

The Nittany Lions, fresh off their instant-classic comeback win in Saturday night's Big Ten title game, jumped up three spots, from No. 8 to No. 5, passing the Wolverines, who dropped from No. 5 to No. 6 with no game to play this weekend.

Who knows if that will be the thinking of the committee or if Penn State's performance Saturday was impressive enough to get it above Washington or Clemson and into the final four.

In the AP poll Sunday, Ohio State checked in at No. 2 behind No. 1 Alabama. The Buckeyes didn't play Saturday either, but those top two spots figure to be how the top two spots of the Playoff field will look. Clemson and Washington stayed the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the poll, which seems to be a likely possibility in the Playoff, as well.

Wisconsin, defeated by Penn State on Saturday night, dropped just two spots from No. 6 to No. 8, jumped by Penn State and Oklahoma, which was victorious in its regular-season finale against Oklahoma State, claiming the Big 12 championship in the process.

Iowa moved up one spot from No. 22 to No. 21, while Nebraska dropped a spot from No. 23 to No. 24. Neither team played this weekend.