Traverse City — The bigger the games, the bigger Brendan Smith seemed to play.
That certainly was the case during the team's playoff push last season.
As a new year beckons, the Red Wings are hoping Smith parlays that late success into a season-long dominance.
"Smitty played real well for the second half of last season," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "We just want him to go. Maybe playing with Nik(las) Kronwall (helped Smith)? I don't know the answer.
"Opportunity? Most players will tell you it's opportunity. You earn the opportunity."
Playing alongside Kronwall certainly appeared to help Smith, who looked more poised and disciplined playing with, arguably, the top Red Wings defenseman. But simply getting the chance to play against other team's best players in the season's most important games inspired Smith.
"I loved playing against the high level of competition," Smith said.
"I felt I played well against guys like (Patrice) Bergeron and (Brad) Marchand or my little brother (Reilly Smith) and (Milan) Lucic and (David) Kreijci, and before then Sid (Sidney Crosby), and shutting them down. I enjoy playing against some of the best players in the world."
Babcock has been coy about what his plans on defense are. Smith and Kronwall are not paired together during intra-squad scrimmages — Kronwall is reunited with his old partner, Jonathan Ericsson.
Regardless of who his partner will be, Smith understands he'll have to match his late-season output.
"I just have to make sure I play my best hockey," Smith said. "Near the end, we saw a lot of good teams and a lot of top lines and maybe that just helps me elevate my game. Maybe I'm more focused at the task at hand and shutting them down."
One change Smith is looking forward to is the opportunity of being on the power play.
"I've been anxious for the last 2½ years," Smith said. "I've wanted to get on, but it's all about opportunity and you have to earn your chance to go out there."
When: Today-Tuesday, Centre Ice Arena, Traverse City
9:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m.: Practice
11:45 a.m.-1 p.m.: Intrasquad scrimmages
7 p.m.: Red Wings alumni and celebrity game
Noon: Red-White scrimmage
10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.: Practice for players not in exhibition
7 p.m. Monday: at Pittsburgh
8:30 p.m. Tuesday: at Chicago