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SportsMonday: Duncan Keith's Teeth

Will anyone be able to focus on anything in Sunday's series clincher against San Jose other than the seven teeth?

Just like that, Duncan Keith's smile was obliterated in the second period when a fearsome clearing attempt sent the puck smashing into his mouth during a Blackhawk power play.

And sure enough, there was the proverbial, additional insult - the Sharks went down and scored a short-handed goal as Keith made his way to the bench for medical attention, seemingly seizing command of the game with a 2-0 lead.

Yes, yes, yes, the Hawks are four wins away from an NHL championship almost 50 years since they last won it (the longest such streak in the NHL), after rallying to win 4-2 and sweeping the Sharks for the Western Conference crown. Dustin Byfuglien is the team's best big-game player since, since, well . . . how about since Pierre Pilote (a star defenseman on the Hawks' last Cup winners - the 1961 squad).

Jonathan Toews did not touch the Campbell Cup and thereby did not jinx the team's quest for the Cup (not sure where that concern about jinxes was when the Hawks' assumed they would beat the Canucks in Game 6 of the second round the week before, but we'll just go with it for now).

But, seven teeth! Knocked out by a speeding hard-rubber disc! And Keith came back to play a great third period! I can sense many dismissive shrugs out there . . . the "that's just the way hockey players are" sentiment. But it doesn't matter how many other hockey players have battled through how many other traumatic injuries when their team needed them. Each such instance should be given its due.

After the injury, Keith did need at least a little time to recuperate. He headed back to the locker room and received at least two shots of pain killer (Novocain?) in his gums. Then, with a gaping hole in his mouth where all his teeth (OK, not quite all but still . . . ) his teeth used to be, he just headed back out to the ice for another amazing period. The Hawks dominated the Sharks in the third and Keith backstopped it all, as he has all series (almost always leading the Hawks in ice time). It was spectacularly tough stuff.

After the game, it appeared Keith finally acknowledged the gruesome injury at least a little bit. He skated back to give goalie Antti Niemi the customary, celebratory pat on the head, paused for a moment and then cleared out as the rest of the Hawks rushed toward the netminder. He had been willing to put his mouth at risk of further damage and himself at risk of plenty more pain during the maelstrom of a playoff third period, but he wasn't risking it in a series-ending celebration.

Game Notes
* I didn't think it was possible. I didn't think that fans could generate more noise in the cavernous United Center than they did in the perfectly constructed Chicago Stadium that was demolished in 1995 after an awesome 65-year run of sports and circuses and even politics (multiple presidential conventions). At the old stadium the balconies hung out over the action. Tickets for seats up there were great deals (at least until the third period, when the accumulated exhalations of a thousand smokers - at least - seriously diminished air quality and even visibility at times).

The United Center was built with luxury suites and unobstructed sightlines foremost in mind. That meant revenues skyrocketed but it also meant the upper reaches of the building were way more spread out than they were at the Stadium. I had the chance to attend a first-round playoff game at the UC last year where people were talking about how loud it was and I was sure they were exaggerating. It simply wasn't as loud as it was at the Stadium and it wasn't just my nostalgic bias kicking into gear.

But the noise is reaching another level this year. All those people (more than 22,000 per game - more than any other hockey team, or basketball team for that matter, in the country) are pumping up the volume to seemingly unprecedented levels. And it is a good thing because the roar is what keeps people coming back to view games in person even in this era of ridiculous ticket prices on one side and amazing home viewing technology on the other (you can just about always see the puck on Hi-Def!)

* Have the Hawks played a better playoff period than the third against the Sharks in the clincher? It was awfully good. They scored the two goals in the second period but their play was choppy during the first 40 minutes, generating barely any offense for most of the first and suffering a couple defensive breakdowns in the second. The Hawks aren't just a great team. They are a great team that is playing its best hockey when it matters most.

* Whoever makes it through the Eastern Conference and into the Stanley Cup Finals opposite the home team will be as big an underdog as we have seen in a major American sporting event in a long time. Hope the Hawks don't jinx it.

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Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend every Monday in this space. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021