Sunday May 31st, 2015

ANAHEIM -- Come to think of it, Duncan Keith’s celebration did seem a bit muted. The Blackhawks alternate captain had just collected his 18th point of this postseason–the second assist on Chicago’s fifth goal of the evening, a Brent Seabrook slapshot ripped past Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen, who wasn’t so bad in this 5-3 Game 7 loss as he was simply overwhelmed.

Seabrook’s third-period rocket, coming just 1:47 after Anaheim’s second goal, restored the visitors’ three-goal buffer, strangled whatever momentum the home team had mustered, induced one disgruntled ex-Duck to tweet out his schadenfreude and punched the Blackhawks’ ticket to their third Stanley Cup finals in six years.

Keith skated over, slapped his fellow defenseman on the back, patted him on the helmet, and went on his way. Maybe he was conserving energy. Keith has averaged a remarkable 31:36 of ice time in this postseason, by choice–the two-time Norris Trophy winner is among the game’s premiere offensive defensemen–and by necessity. Since Michal Rozsival fractured an ankle in the final game of Chicago’s second-round sweep of the Wild, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has rolled primarily with four defenseman.

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Duly noting this was Quenneville’s long-ago teammate, Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, a terrific regular season skipper now doomed to another year of answering questions about the millstone he must bear, onto which has been engraved his ghastly record in seventh games: following Saturday night’s loss, it now stands at 1-6.

Boudreau’s plan to slow the Blackhawks was not exactly original: with their legion of brawny forwards, the Ducks would tenderize Chicago’s diminished corps of defenseman. Every time a Chicago rearguard turned his back to retrieve a puck from the corner, they would introduce him, with violence, to the Plexiglas.

The idea was to pulverize Keith in particular. As Anaheim’s excellent, aggravating center Ryan Kesler had remarked earlier in the series, “No human could withstand” the barrage of body blows to which Keith would be subjected. It all made you hope Keith’s insurance was up to date.

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In the end, as he worked his way through the handshake line, Keith looked, almost … fresh. When I told him he seemed pretty spry, considering how much ice time he’d logged, and how frequently he’d been targeted, he deadpanned, “What’s spry?”

“I feel good,” he went on, then gave Anaheim its propers: “Let’s face it, they’re at the top of our conference for a reason–they’re big guys that can skate, and with a lot of skill.” That said, he went on, “I think we’re moving on for a reason, for showing a lot of character, using our strength and skill.”

This conference finals pitted a team that had been assembled to get past the swift, artistic Red Wings, against a club built to go mano-a-mano with the punishing, physical Kings. With its embarrassment of riches in the Skills Dept., Chicago won going away. It wasn’t that Anaheim got worse, contended the forlorn Boudreau, afterward. “But I do believe the Blackhawks got better. They’re a tough team to catch up from.”

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“They’ve been through this before,” said one former NHL director of player personnel, of the Western Conference champs. Bigger teams always plan to wear Chicago down, to turn a series into a battle of attrition. “They bend a little”–the Blackhawks lost three of the first five games against the Ducks–“but they don’t break. Next thing you know, games six and seven, it’s not about hitting. It’s about hockey.”

“I don’t think there was one time that we’ve talked about getting worn down, or physically beaten up,” said right wing Patrick Kane, pointedly, 20 minutes after his team had advanced. Besides, he added, the Hawks can bang a little. "We’re a puck possession team, but at the same time, we have to win our fair share of battles. It’s not just skill that’s gonna get it done all the time.”

Skill that got it done down the stretch in this series. Anaheim won The Battle of the Body Blows, outhitting Chicago 336 to 251, over seven games. And the Ducks are done for the season.

They are done because Quenneville went all-in with the so-called Nuclear Option. Starting in the third period of Game 5 –the Hawks clawed back from a 3-goal deficit to tie the game, before losing in overtime – the coach put Toews and Kane together on the same line, a scary and somewhat awesome concentration of skill and speed which, yes, slightly diluted the potency of the team’s second line. So replete is this team with offensive talent that one barely noticed.

Kane, Toews and speedy young left winger, Brandon Saad, were greater than the sum of their parts, combining, in the final two games, for five goals. “When you add Keith to that mix,” said the scout, “that’s as close as you’re ever going to see to a five-on-five power play. It’s the Nuclear Option-Plus.”

As is their custom, the Blackhawks put rather a damper on the presentation of the tasteful, finely wrought Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, the silver trophy awarded the Western Conference champion. It sat on its table, none of the Blackhawks so much as touching it. To do so, some players believe, diminishes their chances of hoisting the Stanley Cup, a fortnight or so hence.

It wasn’t because they were too tired. As Keith said, a short while later, “I don’t think anybody’s tired this time of year.”

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