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Defensive-minded Ben Smith trying to be more goal-oriented for Hawks

DENVER — Before the first question was even halfway over, Ben Smith looked down and chuckled. He knew what this story was going to be about.

It wasn’t going to be about all the things he’s doing well this season — co-piloting the league’s best penalty-kill, anchoring the checking line for the league’s second-stingiest team, hurling himself in front of opposing shots with reckless abandon.

No, this one was going to be about what’s going on at the other end of the ice. Or, to be more precise, what’s not happening.

Smith simply isn’t scoring.

“I knew this would come at some point,” he said with a laugh.

Smith has played every Hawks game this season, and has averaged more ice time than Brad Richards and Bryan Bickell, among others. Yet after Wednesday night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, he has just one goal and one assist in those 22 games. His lone goal came way back on Oct. 23 at Nashville. His lone assist came Saturday night in the 7-1 rout of Edmonton in which nearly every player on the team got a point.

It’s not for a lack of trying. Smith is averaging 1.3 shots on goal per game — a tick higher than last year’s 1.2. They’re just not going in this year. His shooting percentage is down from a team-high (among everyday players) 15.6 percent last year to a team-low 3.4 percent this year.

Now, it’s not Smith’s job to score goals. It’s his job to prevent them. But he raised the bar pretty high the last two years, scoring 27 goals in his final season in the minors, and 14 goals last year despite mostly playing the same shutdown role he’s playing this year.

The fact that his minutes have actually gone up from last year is as clear a sign as any that Joel Quenneville isn’t terribly concerned with the lack of offense.

“When you look at guys that, they’re doing other things,” Quenneville said. “They’ve got a big responsibility on the PK, and they’re doing the job in that area. That’s why it was such a nice year [last season] for him; the production was a bonus on top of that.”

But if Smith isn’t feeling pressure from the coaching staff, he’s still feeling it.

“I think that as hockey players, we put all the heat on ourselves,” he said. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to contribute and play well and play our roles. I haven’t heard anything from the coaches about offense. But I definitely would like it to start coming. You’re a hockey player. You want to score goals.”

Droughts happen. This year alone, prolific scorers Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp all have gone through them. And Smith has gone through them, too — something even his mother has been quick to remind him of. It happened in Rockford. And it happened last year; Smith had just four goals by New Year’s last year, and had 10 over the second half of the season.

“My mom keeps reminding me of that when I talk to her,” Smith said with a sheepish grin. “Just the other day, we were talking about it, and she just said, ‘Keep going. It’s happened before. They’ll start going in.’”

And in the meantime, he’ll try to keep jumping in front of opposing shots. Keep killing off penalties. Keep winning those defensive-zone draws and flipping the ice. That’s what he’s here for, after all. The goals are just gravy.

“Just keep working, it’s going to go in eventually,” said linemate and PK partner Marcus Kruger. “He keeps creating chances, so we’re not too worried about that. Of course, it’d be nice to see him getting a goal, but he’s doing a lot of good stuff out there. He’s important for our team.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus