A Cup Most Unkind

June 13, 2010

After finally neutralizing nasty Chris Pronger, the Blackhawks were one victory away from their first title in 49 years

When Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith left the United Center on Sunday night, the Stanley Cup was so close—one tantalizing game away—that he could practically taste it, as long as he stuck it in the side of his mouth and chewed with his molars. Keith offers a heady mix of high-end speed, smart reads and courage without any noticeable holes, unless you count the chasm where seven of his front teeth had been rooted until they intercepted a puck two weeks ago at the end of the Western Conference final.

Keith might soon have a Cup, with a side order of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He already has that other modern measure of success—6,824 members of the Facebook group Duncan Keith's Missing Teeth. The Blackhawks, who faced a possible clincher on Wednesday after a wild 7--4 win over Philadelphia in Game 5, have been chasing a Stanley Cup dream that has languished since before the age of color television. The genesis of the revival of an Original Six franchise from moribund to incandescent, from patsy to powerhouse, probably started in 2002 when the team drafted Keith in the second round. Although Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are the faces of the franchise, Keith, a Norris Trophy finalist, is the face of playoff hockey. In the finals against a Flyers club with almost cartoonlike resilience, Keith has been more than a missing piece of the puzzle. He is the whole damn Jigsaw.

Brian Campbell tagged Keith with the nickname Jigsaw, in homage to his teammate's passion for Saw movies. "He loves serial killers," the defenseman explained. "He's a weird guy."

Now by the standards of a bizarre and rollicking 2010 finals, Keith is a paragon of normality. The games have been intense and sloppy, inelegant and entertaining, a high-scoring hodgepodge—an average of eight goals per game—in which, paradoxically, the two most compelling players have been defensemen.

There has been Keith, a pocketful of mumbles (he is refusing to get fitted with new teeth until after the finals) who had four assists in Games 4 and 5 and who, with partner Brent Seabrook, had effectively blanketed Flyers captain Mike Richards's line (Richards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagné are a combined --10). But the clarion voice of the series was in the other dressing room, maybe 20 steps down the corridor, alternately grinning and glaring after an egregious Game 5. Chris Pronger was on the ice for six of the seven Chicago goals, in the penalty box for the other. The last time anything or anybody had such a rough time on ice, Morgan Freeman was doing play-by-play on marching penguins.

Perhaps the Cup will ultimately belong to the long-suffering Blackhawks, but most of the collectible moments in the finals seemed to belong to Pronger. He was the focal point of the series on and off the ice, a 6'6" maypole around which hockey danced for the better part of a fortnight.

"This is Chris's world, and I'm happy to live in it," said Ian Laperrière, the Flyers veteran fourth liner. "I'll follow this guy anywhere."

On the afternoon after Claude Giroux's Game 3 overtime goal had given Philadelphia its initial victory, Pronger occupied a folding chair outside the rear exit of the dressing room. His five-year-old, George, an imp with a sunburst of blond hair, sat on his father's lap, fidgeting with a sports drink bottle and occasionally interjecting in the conversation, a pint-size Greek chorus. When the talk turned to hulking Blackhawks winger Dustin Byfuglien, George blurted, "Byfuglien sucks."

His father recoiled in mock horror.

"Did someone in the crowd yesterday say that?" Pronger asked. "You learn that language at the rink?"

"No. From Da Da."

"No way."

If the language was not kindergarten-approved, the boy's assessment was hardly baseless through four games. His old man had neutralized the 257-pound Byfuglien, Pronger's medicine ball and chain. But then Pronger also had been tormenting Toews and forcing Kane to take a circuitous route to prime scoring areas. The Pronger Effect: In the third period of the Flyers' 5--3 Game 4 win, coach Joel Quenneville split up Byfuglien's linemates to get them away from Pronger. Toews, at least, had been making a tangible contribution with a superb 67.0 face-off percentage—his lone assist through the first four games of the series had come without Pronger on the ice—but Byfuglien, who had scored three game-winners in the conference finals, had just six shots and one assist. Big Buff had been reduced to a puddle of tallow, at least on the odd times he had managed to plant himself in front of the Flyers' net.

"The biggest thing I noticed watching the Vancouver and San Jose series is they just let him get there," Pronger said. "A big guy like that, you got to make him work every inch of the ice."

Byfuglien seemed so cowed that instead of throwing a remember-me check in the second period of Game 4 when Pronger was in a vulnerable position at the intersection of the boards and blue line, he discreetly fished for the puck in Pronger's skates, using his CCM the way a man might poke around with a broom to reach a quarter that has rolled under the couch. (Circumspection is not considered an attractive hockey trait.) Of course in the same period, Pronger didn't hesitate to pinch and lay a lick on Byfuglien, even at the risk of giving up a three-on-one had the puck slithered into the neutral zone. (It didn't.) "You can't be worried about [Pronger] all the time," Kane says, "because it'll just mess up your game." The classic way to attack Pronger, a left shot who plays the right side, is to dump the puck softly into his corner, force him to turn and gather it on his backhand, then pound him like a veal cutlet. But the Hawks were not making a 35-year-old defenseman, averaging 30:03 minutes per game, pay a price. Pronger, who finished Game 4 a +4 and was on the ice for all five Flyers goals, wasn't even being obliged to reach for his wallet, much less the puck. The scamp on his lap was not Pronger's only child. He also looked like the Blackhawks' Da Da.

"He's a good player," Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp conceded before Game 5. "He's one of the best of all time, I guess you can say."

That was for public consumption. Internally, Chicago was fulminating about the latitude the referees were affording Pronger, particularly an uncalled chop to Marian Hossa's foot in Game 4 that propelled the winger toward the boards with 50 seconds left in a one-goal match. "Sometimes you think it's a for-sure penalty with the ref standing 10 feet away from him," Kane says. "But there's no call." Through four games Pronger had been whistled for just one minor penalty, high-sticking in Game 3.

Of course his most heralded clutching and grabbing had come just after the final siren. In an ode to puerility, Pronger began to claim the puck after every match—including losses. This schoolyard business attracted headlines after the Blackhawks' Game 2 win when Chicago left wing Ben Eager publicly objected to Pronger absconding with the puck, comments that followed an end-of-game, on-ice burlesque highlighted by Pronger wristing a balled-up red towel that struck Eager. Pronger saw subsequent references to his "stealing" the puck, a description that apparently left him in high dudgeon, although with hockey's Tower of Sour, you never know. Pronger often speaks with a nod and a wink, a smile and a sneer. His press conferences during the finals were performance art, sardonic and ruminative and wildly entertaining. Clearly Pronger enjoys jousting with media members, some of whom find him prickly. (And that's giving him the benefit of a couple of letters.)

"I picked up the puck," he says. "I didn't steal the puck. I picked up the puck. So you can go into your NHL rule book, and where in there does it show that it's stealing. Anyone on the ice can take a puck. It's the property of the National Hockey League, and I am part of the National Hockey League. So it's fair game."

This is the quintessential Pronger, stealing thunder if not pucks. Laperrière says it is no coincidence Pronger has been in the finals three times with three different teams in the past five years "because he makes everybody better around him by his composure on the ice." In 2006 he dragged the undermanned Oilers to a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. The following year he was a critical component of the champion Ducks. Now in his first season as a Flyer, he is the Philly fulcrum.

"He's an overwhelming presence, on and off the ice," says Craig Simpson, the CBC analyst who was an Oilers assistant coach in 2005--06. "There's ego. There's opinion. With Chris, you take the good with the bad. There's been some sense of a tug-of-war in the dressing room because of his personality with every team he's been on. His actions . . . there can be a sense of arrogance about them. But he's always able to back it up on the ice."

Then came the Game 5 debacle, in which Quenneville shuffled Toews, Kane and Byfuglien off to separate lines and Pronger and the Flyers played much of the game in a trance. On Chicago's opening power-play goal, Pronger touched the puck on its way from behind the net to Seabrook at the left circle and touched the puck again when Keith's mate fired it into the net. He abandoned Chicago forward Kris Versteeg when he came down and cut to the middle on the third Blackhawks goal. He blocked a shot on Chicago's fourth but couldn't control the rebound. He was in the penalty box for hooking when Byfuglien, unfettered, tapped in the fifth goal after a snappy five-pass sequence in which Keith made the penultimate dish. On the Blackhawks' empty-netter, Byfuglien simply shot the puck past him. Filled in on the statistical debris that littered his fright night—he was -5 after having been +7 through four games—Pronger replied, "Thanks for the green jacket."

Pronger had as many rim shots as shots on goal: one.

Now it's hard being a stand-up guy, or stand-up comedian, when an emboldened Byfuglien has knocked you down. Twice. Byfuglien was able to wallpaper Pronger in the corner in the second period and along the boards in the third precisely because the Hawks finally made Pronger turn, skate and work. When it later was suggested that Game 5 was the first match in which his nemesis had an impact, Pronger said, "I guess he's well-rested." Meaning Big Buff hadn't been doing much? "I guess," Pronger repeated, "he's well-rested."

Unlike Keith, his Blackhawks counterpart, Pronger still had some bite.

Eager gleefully pounced on the puck at the end of the match, then seemed to taunt the Flyers with his souvenir. As with most things, Pronger shrugged. He vowed to recover in time for Game 6. He listed himself as "day-to-day, with hurt feelings."

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"You can't be worried about Pronger all the time," says one Blackhawk, "because it'll just mess up your game."

Chicago was fulminating about the latitude the referees afforded Pronger in the first four games.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOUNLEASHED Byfuglien wasn't a factor until Chicago's realignment freed him up to score two goals and paste Pronger twice in Game 5. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLATOPSY-TURVY Pronger dominated the Hawks' top line through four games, but a revived Byfuglien brought him low on Sunday. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLAFACE MAN Keith's play was prettier than his smile, and put him in the running for MVP if the Hawks win.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)