Blackhawks show Sharks their bite
Keith returns to the ice after losing seven teeth, proving these Hawks mean business
CHICAGO -- The face of hockey, the window to the pain and sacrifice it takes to play this game, is frozen like the Indian head at the center of the United Center floor.
The hair is typical, long and greasy and poking out of the back of an old free hat honoring Tony Esposito. The eyes are languid, the mouth shy, concealing a void where its teeth used to be. The lips are bloodied and unhurried.
Duncan Keith, all beardy and sweaty and hockey humble, is trying to tell a revolving group of reporters why it wasn't that big of a deal that a puck collided with his face, costing him seven teeth and only a handful of shifts. He's talking at a whisper, and with a pronounced lisp. He isn't trying to be humble. This isn't an act.
About seven minutes of ice time, one for each tooth, elapsed from the time he stumbled off the ice, teeth in his throat, and got shot up with enough numbing medicine to return.
Keith, the Olympian and candidate for the Norris Trophy, wound up skating four more shifts in the second period and 13 in the third as the Blackhawks clinched their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since the days of Roenick and Belfour and Chelios.
"Honestly, I was fine," Keith said. "You get hit in the teeth, obviously it hurts the gums, but it's not like you got your jaw smashed in or anything like that. It's tougher talking, but it's not as bad as you think it is."
Here's a new Chicago Blackhawks motto for you: "One Goal. Seven Teeth."
Keith's Komeback was one of many positive stories in the Blackhawks' 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday to close out the Western Conference finals in a 4-0 sweep. This wasn't a must-win game, but Keith wasn't about to miss any time. The doctors jammed seven needles in his jaw, and he was back on the ice. He assisted on Dave Bolland's tying goal with 1:22 to go in the second.
"He created the whole play, taking the big hit to set it up," Patrick Sharp said. "And he's skating around before the power play, telling us what to do, but he's mumbling. I don't think anyone understood what he was talking about. But he's one of our leaders."
"I wanted to get out there," Keith said. "I heard they scored. It was kind of frustrating. It was nice to hear the crowd cheering when we scored again. So I missed a couple goals there. I wanted to get out there as quick as I can."
The Hawks had to struggle to get past the seventh-seeded Nashville Predators in the first round, but they've gotten better each and every series. No one could accuse this team of looking toward the Stanley Cup with a 3-0 lead. After a slow start -- one shot in the first 16 minutes -- the Hawks turned in a championship performance, sweeping the top seed and setting up a playoff series that will engulf this city.
Last year, the Hawks were just happy to be in the Western Conference finals against a veteran Detroit Red Wings team. This year, for obvious reasons, the team had different goals.
"This year, it's almost like we feel we shouldn't lose a game," Patrick Kane said. "It's not cocky. That's just our attitude. We feel like we have such a good team and the way we can play, we feel we're as good as anyone in the league."
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Down 2-0 early in the second period, Chicago scored the last four goals, tying the game late in the second and taking a lead in the third on Dustin Byfuglien's third game winner of this series. Kris Versteeg's empty-netter with 42 seconds to go iced it. Brent Seabrook was credited with the Blackhawks' first goal after an official review. No Kane, no Toews, no Marian Hossa. And that was a good thing.
"So many guys stepped up," Kane said. "Every game was a new challenge for us. It looked like things weren't going to go our way today and we still stepped up and got the win. It's a really cool feeling right now."
The Hawks will take on the winner of the Philadelphia Flyers-Montreal Canadiens series in the franchise's first Cup finals appearance since 1992, but there was no celebration off the ice Sunday. No beer showers, not a hint of champagne. They got new hats and cheap T-shirts, but that about covered it.
Then again, this is a sport in which teams snub a conference championship trophy like it was an annoying reporter. It's Stanley Cup or bust. No use celebrating the milestones.
"We don't do that. We go for the big one," said John Madden, one of a few Hawks with Stanley Cup experience, on the lack of premature jocularity. "It's always been like that, the two times I won the Cup. We just congratulated each other and maybe had a cold one and that's it."
The Hawks' locker room was buzzing with activity, but each player stayed in their stall, wearing a cap and a T-shirt commemorating their feat and looking toward their next task. Certainly celebrations would take place later in nightclubs and tony restaurants, with parents and girlfriends and wives and bottle service.
Keith will be celebrating in the dentist's chair. He could feel the medicine wearing off as he talked. But he sat at his locker to talk to every reporter, answering every question.
"One, no two were fake already," he said. "Hopefully I can get some nice teeth now."
How many did he lose? In-game reports said four, which were later amended to seven.
"Let's take a look," he said, opening his mouth and showing a top shelf of gums. "I haven't even seen what I look like, you tell me."
Seven and a half minutes into the second period, Keith crumpled to the ice after Patrick Marleau, battling with Toews for puck possession in the Blackhawks' end, nailed him point-blank with a puck. Keith staggered off the ice and a few seconds later, Marleau scored to give the Sharks a 2-0 lead.
Keith said he knew right away his teeth were smashed in. This isn't his first rodeo. He could feel one hitting the back of his throat.
"I felt a chunk of something back there," he said. "I figured it was a tooth. It wouldn't have been anything else."
It's almost cliché to write about a tough hockey player, but it's not unfair to say he was motivation for his teammates, even the veterans.
"There are a lot of things that go undisclosed," said Brian Campbell, who missed the last month of the regular season and the first three games of the first round of the playoffs with a broken clavicle and fractured rib. "Duncan's is out there. You look at guys like that, it's inspiration."
"It's not that [impressive] I'm just kidding. It's very impressive," Madden said. "I think the last guy I saw with all his teeth knocked out was Ken Daneyko, and he came back the same way. And that was years ago. I saw Duncs take that right in the mouth. To overcome something like that and come back, it's a tribute to how great of a guy he is and how great of a teammate he is."
After last year's surprising run to the conference finals, this season has been a virtual countdown up to this point. This team had the talent, the depth and the leadership to get here. They carried a bull's-eye all season. Now the end is almost here, and there will be plenty to celebrate soon enough. So flash a smile, Blackhawks, with or without original teeth.
One Goal. Seven Teeth. Four More Games.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com