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Ben Smith

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Brian Davidson | Special to The Journal Gazette
Jean-Michel Rizk skates toward the Missouri goal during Saturday’s Game 5, which the Komets lost to put them in a 3-2 hole.

Pressure? These K’s say there isn’t any

So go on, then, choose a cliché. They all work.

Backs against the wall?

Well, sure.

There’s no tomorrow?

Absolutely.

Win or go home?

Right as rain.

Every one of those is the handle this goes by now, “this” being the Turner Conference finals. They come back to Fort Wayne tonight for Game 6, and the home team’s in a bind. The Komets trail Missouri three games to two in the best-of-seven, and so it’s either go time or go away time.

Here’s the upside to that: If this is the Alamo, it’s not like these guys don’t know their way around the place.

Out there on the ice Monday, for instance, the tension’s so unthick you could slice it with al dente spaghetti. Guys are hanging out, sprawled on the ice in small clumps. They’re cranking off shots that slap the back of the net or boom hollowly against the boards. One of them just mock-mugged goalie Nick Boucher, strapping a bear hug on him and lifting him off the ice.

Here comes Brett Smith now, clomping toward the locker room.

“I love adversity,” he says.

Then he adds, look, this is nothing new, this tightrope walk over season’s end. A year ago at this time, when he was with Bossier-Shreveport, the Mudbugs found themselves down 2-1 in the best-of-five Berry Conference semis against Tulsa. And midway through Game 4, at Tulsa, the Mudbugs trailed 1-0.

Well, you know what happened next. The Mudbugs rallied to win 3-2 in overtime. Then they won Game 5. Then they went on to win the President’s Cup.

“It’s exciting,” Smith says now. “Probably when I was a rookie, I’d be freaking out right now. But eight years later, I’ve been through these experiences, and I realize, … it’s just another game.”

And maybe he can see it that way because of Game 4 in Tulsa last year, or maybe he can see it that way because of what’s in that locker room just down the way from where he’s standing. Jamie Milam’s in there, and Milam was there for Game 4 in Tulsa last year, too. Boucher and Colin Chaulk are in there, too, and they were here when the Komets trailed Port Huron 3-1 in the best-of-seven Turner Cup finals in 2008 and 3-1 in the semis in 2010, and rallied to win both times.

So they’ve got that going for them, heading for Game 6. And they’ve got their coach, Al Sims, who was around for both Port Huron comebacks, too, and knows how to handle these deals.

“We’re approaching it the same way we prepare for every game,” he said Monday. “The more you mention elimination or we’re going home to play golf if we lose tomorrow, the more pressure it puts on your players and your team. If you’ve got confidence, you’re not going to mention those things.”

So there’s your secret, and it’s really no secret at all. You turn the clichés back on themselves, that’s all. If there’s a wall at your back, you greet it like an old friend. If there’s no tomorrow, well, that just means your focus is right where it should be, on today. And if it’s win or go home, that same focus edits it to down to just “win.”

“Games like this, your nerves can be your friend or your enemy, so being a veteran guy doesn’t necessarily help you,” Milam said Monday. “Experience comes with being comfortable and confident, so you just kind of take it in that regard.

“It’s just waking up every morning and knowing what you’ve got to do. Just like any job.”

Any job. Any game.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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