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Blackhawks showing some teeth

CHICAGO -- In his first game as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, against the New York Rangers in an Original 6 matchup, Patrick Sharp looked around cavernous United Center and that's what he saw. Six.

Actually there were some 9,000 in the building that distant night, although that figure might have been a matter of creative arithmetic. In any case, a depressed Sharp had come from a first-place team in Philadelphia to a city where the Blackhawks couldn't get arrested.

(These were the pre-Patrick Kane taxi-in-Buffalo days.)

"It's been a big change, that's for sure," said Sharp, who arrived in December 2005, back in the bad old days of the late owner, Dollar Bill Wirtz. "Years ago I would have never expected this turnaround so quickly. It means a lot to everybody, but especially to guys like (DuncanKeith and BrentSeabrook) and myself, who have been here through some pretty tough years ... I challenge anyone to find a better place to play in the league right now than Chicago."

"I just remember the first handful of games I played at home, it was pretty ugly still," said captain JonathanToews, who started in 2007-08. "Our people have done a great job promoting the team, but nothing is better than having a team that wins games and plays an entertaining style of hockey."

Chicago has come all the way back to the Stanley Cup Final, a testament to the enlightened ownership of Wirtz's son Rocky, JoelQuenneville's coaching, and one of the NHL's deepest teams. The Blackhawks moved into the final with a 4-2 victory in Game 4 over the valiant, but outmanned San Jose Sharks, completing a sweep. The final will start Saturday here if the Philadelphia Flyers eliminate Montreal on Monday, enough time to fit Keith, a Norris Trophy finalist, for seven new teeth and further amp up the city in which hockey used to feel like a root canal just five years ago.

The most dominant players in the series were DustinByfuglien, who scored the winner on a power-play goal from breathing distance against Sharks goalie EvgeniNabokov with about six minutes left in the third period, and Toews, the magnificent captain. For Byfuglien, it was his team-leading eighth playoff goal and his third winner of the series -- Games 1, 3 in overtime and 4. (Bug Buff also scored in Game 2.) For Toews, the second assist on Byfuglien's series-clincher gave him a point in 13 straight games, adding to his franchise record.

But the unspoken star of the series was the city of Chicago itself, which once again is a burly hockey destination. The Bears can have their OTAs, but goalie AnttiNiemi has his GAA, a stingy 2.33 goals-against average. Cubs manager Lou Piniella can moan about a lack of timely hitting, but Byfuglien threw five hits against the Sharks in the closeout game. White Sox general manager KenWilliams and manager OzzieGuillen can keep the newspapers busy with their ongoing bickering, but if you want a sports story with real teeth, you turn to Keith, who lost three uppers and four lowers when he stuck his face in the way of a PatrickMarleau penalty kill clear midway through the second period.

Keith took some needles in his mouth to freeze it, spit out the Chiclets and was back on the ice in about seven minutes -- that's roughly one minute per tooth. He would get an assist on DaveBolland's late goal and mumble incomprehensible instructions to his teammates in the faceoff circles. He would end up playing a stunning 29:02.

"I was fine," said Keith, when asked if he hesitated about returning to the game. He sounded like a young ClintEastwood in a Dirty Harry movie, only on Novocain or something.

"To get hit in the teeth, obviously it hurts the gums, but it's not like the jaw or anything like that ... It was an unlucky play. I knew right away my teeth were smashed in. I felt a chunk of something in there. I figured it was a tooth. Couldn't be anything else. Some teeth were falling out as I was skating off. I coughed one out. It sounds gross, but you know what? It happens all the time to guys."

"Yeah, I told him it's kind of a blessing in disguise because now he's going to get some nice fake teeth," Sharp said. "He's going to have a great smile in a couple weeks. That's playoff hockey all over it. A guy takes one in the face, picking out his teeth in the locker room, comes back."

The grit quotient delighted the 22,224 in the arena, who have embraced this team with a lusty group hug befitting an Original 6 town, a love affair that was unrequited for more than 15 years. As GM StanBowman said, the hockey fans in the city never really left. However, they did do an excellent job of hiding.

"The city's been dying for this for a long time," said Bowman, who has been with the organization since 2001. "They never went away, the fans. They just got frustrated. Now you see it around the city. Go to a baseball game, and there are as many Blackhawks jerseys as Cubs or White Sox. You really saw it start with the Olympics. (Kane and Toews were both on SI.com's all-tournament team.) My friends who know nothing about hockey got kinda curious then. Now (our run) has really piqued their interest."

If there is a lesson for Bowman from any of the past six weeks, it is this: never spend a dime more than necessary on goaltending. You can find goalies anywhere. The final will be a goaltender's duel between Niemi and probably the Flyers' MichaelLeighton, who has been on a waiver wire more than StringerBell was on the cops' wire on that old HBO show, or, possibly, JaroslavHalak, the Canadiens ninth-round draft choice who supplanted CareyPrice.

The theory of Detroit GM KenHolland, who generally goes low budget in net, has survived in these playoffs long past the Red Wings: Go cheap. The big-ticket goalies -- Vancouver's RobertoLuongo and New Jersey's MartinBrodeur -- are long gone. CristobalHuet, whom ex-Hawk GM DaleTallon signed for four years at an average of $5.625 million, can't get off the bench although he does look spiffy in a baseball cap. (Huet's contract is one reason Tallon is now Florida's GM.) The two goalies likely to see each other in the final make a combined, prorated $1.467 million. Throw Halak into the equation, the total jumps to $2.267, about two-and-a-half times less than Chicago pays Huet to observe his Finnish understudy.

They don't ask about your salary or your pedigree. (The 26-year-old rookie used to also drive the Zamboni to earn extra money when he played in a lower Finnish league.) They ask if you can stop the puck.

"Well, you got to commend him, how well he's handled the situation," Quenneville said. "I think the one thing that makes him keep moving on, he's a very relaxed guy, very comfortable, confident as he approaches games or during games. (He) just moves ahead to the next shot ... He just goes about it like, 'Hey, I'm just trying to stop the next puck and do my job.'"

"There were a couple of good games early in the season when I got the feeling (I could be a good NHL goalie)," said Niemi, delighted that he now gets a chance to replicate what some fabulous Finns, wingers JariKurri and TeemuSelanne, have done by winning a Stanley Cup. "It's pretty huge coming through this season and getting to this point now."

Toews didn't touch the Campbell Trophy to emphasis that point, some superstitious hokum that has made a mockery of many of these conference final celebrations. (Penguins captain SidneyCrosby touched the Prince of Wales Trophy last May; that seemed to work out okay.) But the Chicago captain gets a pass for snubbing the prize. In a city that has had its face pressed to the glass since its last Stanley Cup in 1961, the longest NHL streak of futility, it's permissible to wait another few weeks before getting fingerprints on any hardware.

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