CHICAGO – Duncan Keith saw the puck coming. He just couldn’t turn his head quickly enough and it smacked him right in the mouth. Ouch!
The Chicago Blackhawks’ top defenceman lost seven teeth on Sunday, but returned minutes later to help the Blackhawks beat San Jose and now he’s ready for the Stanley Cup finals. Game 1 against Philadelphia is in Chicago on Saturday.
“I feel fine, it’s just teeth. I might not sound the same, but I still feel the same,” Keith said after skating in practice Tuesday.
He lost four teeth on the bottom and three more on top but won’t be getting a new set until after the season is over. And if it sounds like he’s all smiles, there’s a reason.
Keith’s speed in the defensive end, his ability to battle opposing forwards and clear the puck out of the zone have helped the Blackhawks contain top scorers throughout the playoffs and take some of the pressure off first-year goalie Antti Niemi, who gave up only seven goals in the sweep of the Sharks.
The tandem of Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom played for the Canadian Olympic team that won the gold medal, will be tested by a Flyers team featuring Mike Richards that is on a roll of its own with eight wins in the last nine games.
“It’s not every day you’re playing for the Stanley Cup, you know, and what an opportunity we all have here,” said Keith, who broke in with the Blackhawks in the 2005-06 season, when the team was struggling on the ice and playing before a half-empty United Center.
Now the Blackhawks are one of the top draws in the NHL and tickets are a hot item as they go after the franchise’s first Stanley Cup win since 1961.
“I think we all realize what’s at stake and that it doesn’t come around very often. Try to seize the moment and try to do everything we can to get it,” he said.
His teammates to a man lauded Keith’s perseverance and grit. And there were also some jokes about his new appearance. But most of all, they’re glad he’s able to go.
“He looks good,” Seabrook said.
Keith got numbed up so he could come back in the game Sunday and then spent a couple of hours in the dentist’s chair after the game.
“That probably was the worst part about it actually, getting the needles in the gums and the roots,” he said.
Keith said he was wearing a mouthguard when he was hit by the puck off the stick of San Jose’s Patrick Marleau but it didn’t help.
“In a lot of ways I was lucky because it hit my teeth. I was lucky enough that it didn’t break anything in my lip or get stitches that way or let alone break my nose or anything of that magnitude,” Keith said. “He just kind of twirled and fired it and I was going right at the puck, so there wasn’t much time to react. I knew right away that it wasn’t good.”
Keith returned minutes later and helped the Blackhawks rally from a 2-0 deficit to a 4-2 win, actually assisting on Dave Bolland’s game-tying goal.
“That was a great comeback, the timing for the comeback. At that point of the game it looked like everything was going against us,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said Tuesday.
“I’m sure he didn’t feel too good coming back but he did a great job, he killed a penalty right in the middle of his first shift back. He’s a warrior, a competitive guy, think he’s kind of characteristic of that whole locker room.”
A Norris Trophy finalist, Keith says he doesn’t plan to wear a special face guard on his helmet in Saturday’s opener but will likely use a new mouth guard.
Keith, who is a compact six foot one, 196 pounds, will have to make adjustments for chewing.
“I always have trouble getting food in me. It takes awhile as it is. So now it’s even more of a battle,” he said. “I’m doing all right. I’ve still got some teeth in there.”