Sharks can't sink their teeth into Blackhawks' hearts
Reason No. 17 million why hockey players are the toughest athletes in professional sports:
Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith got his mouth in the way of a blast by San Jose’s Patrick Marleau Sunday during the second period of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. Keith lost seven — count ‘em seven -– teeth and missed about seven minutes’ playing time but returned to be a force in the 4-2 victory that put the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992.
“It's just missing teeth. It’s a long way from the heart,” Keith told reporters in Chicago after his team completed its stunning sweep.
The Blackhawks demonstrated a great deal of heart in eliminating the Sharks, who again seemed to have hollow chests. Jonathan Toews was magnificent at both ends. Goaltender Antti Niemi stayed composed while the skillful Sharks crashed his crease. Dustin Byfuglien became a folk hero in Chicago by scoring the winners in Games 1, 3 and 4.
The majority of Sharks were no-shows at crunch time. Only Patrick Marleau was a consistent threat. Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley were almost invisible in the conference finals. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov gave up too many softies.
“You know, there's going to be a lot of people sitting behind a computer and a typewriter writing their stories tomorrow. I know exactly how they're going to come out because that's what you guys do,” Sharks Coach Todd McLellan told reporters during a post-series news conference.
“But when you're in between those walls, in those bricks, you know, we believe in that group. We have that experience now. You know, we've gone through that. Maybe we can expand on it.”
And maybe those of us who watch his team from a distance can recognize what he and General Manager Doug Wilson are too near-sighted to see: that the Sharks can’t or won’t come through in the clutch and need the massive overhaul that Wilson refused to perform last summer.
Back to the Blackhawks and their post-game news conference.
Patrick Sharp had the best lines about Keith’s misfortune and how it inspired the team.
“I told him it's kind of a blessing in disguise because now he's going to get some nice fake teeth. He's going to have a great smile in a couple weeks,” Sharp said.
“That's playoff hockey all over it. A guy takes one in the face, picking out his teeth in the locker room, comes back. He assisted on the [Dave] Bolland goal there, created the whole goal there by taking a big hit. He's walking around, skating around the ice, talking to us before the power play, mumbling what we were supposed to do. I don't think anybody understood what he was talking about.
“But he's one of our leaders. He's wearing the letter [as an alternate captain]. He's had a great season up to this point. He's only getting better.”
So are the Blackhawks, who lost the conference title to Detroit last year.
Their rise from near-oblivion has been remarkable — and it offers hope to teams like the Kings, who were awful for years, got prime draft picks as a reward for their failures and have succeeded in developing those picks. The Kings appear to be on the same track as the Blackhawks, though two or three years behind.
“We should all be fortunate about the opportunity we have here, being in Chicago with the Blackhawks organization. The team, the foundation, is in a great spot,” Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville said.
“You know, some core young players are going to have special careers. But I think over the last two years trying to get better as a team has been the objective, and as individuals we think there's room to grow as well.
“I think our same course of development this year was basically on the same path as last year's was, and I think we gained some experience of knowing what it took to get to this round, using that to our advantage throughout this series particularly.”
In the East, the Flyers have a 3-1 lead over the Canadiens and can wrap up the East title Monday at home. A sixth game, if necessary, would be played Wednesday at Montreal. If it ends Monday, the NHL likely would release the Stanley Cup finals schedule late Monday night.