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Time to Get Freaky

June 15, 2015
June 15, 2015

Table of Contents
June 15, 2015

INBOX
STANLEY CUP FINALS
  • TALL MAN VS. IRON MAN. LONG LEGS VS. STRONG LEGS. THE HEART OF THE BLACKHAWKS-LIGHTNING SERIES IS THE BATTLE BETWEEN TWO NHL OUTLIERS. LAST MAN STANDING GETS THE CUP

FIFA SCANDAL
NBA FINALS
STEVE KERR
JOHAN SANTANA
POINT AFTER
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Time to Get Freaky

TALL MAN VS. IRON MAN. LONG LEGS VS. STRONG LEGS. THE HEART OF THE BLACKHAWKS-LIGHTNING SERIES IS THE BATTLE BETWEEN TWO NHL OUTLIERS. LAST MAN STANDING GETS THE CUP

THE DECIMAL-POINT revolution that has swept sports in the 21st century arrived fashionably late in hockey, where traditionally the numbers that seemed to matter most were goals, stitches and missing teeth. Coarse has now given way to Corsi and even more enlightened statistics, the helpful but reductionist figures that can make a sprawling drama like the Stanley Cup finals, palpable with tension, appear smaller than it looks on the ice. The metrics are less compelling than the mood when the NHL lurches into June, but two intriguing numbers loomed over the best-of-seven series between the Blackhawks and the Lightning, and neither required an analytical tool more sophisticated than a Timex or a tape measure: 31:20 and 6'7".

This is an article from the June 15, 2015 issue

The first number is chronometric and distinctly old school; it is the average per-game ice time in the playoffs for indefatigable Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith.

The second is biological and hopelessly modern; it is the height of Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop, the tallest goalie in NHL history.

LeBron vs. Steph. The FBI vs. FIFA. American Pharoah vs. history. The week in sports lent itself to prècis, even if shorthand rarely suits the playoffs' meandering ways. It is certainly a disservice to the shocking ability of Lightning checker Cèdric Paquette to stifle Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, and to the safecracker's hands of Chicago rookie forward Teuvo Teravainen, but after the teams split the opening two games in the Sunshine State, the finals could be encapsulated, headlined and marketed as a summer blockbuster centered around two freaks of hockey nature.

Stanley Cup 2015: Godzilla vs. The Cyborg.

FOR THE moment the unsanctioned title of best player in hockey, a designation that can be as fleeting as footprints on St. Pete Beach, belongs to Keith. "Duncan's the best in the world right now," Blackhawks center Brad Richards said on the eve of the finals. "A guy who eats that many minutes, he just controls the game." One night later, in the third period of Game 1, after having already played about 25 minutes, Keith hopped off the bench and skated to the intersection of the blue line and the far left boards. Tampa Bay led 1--0, and fewer than seven minutes remained. Keith extended his stick with his right hand to gather a pass from winger Andrew Shaw. Like a table-hockey figurine, he skated a straight line down the wall to the hashmarks, probed in vain for a shooting lane while being marked by Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, twirled in a tight circle and walked back up the boards. He backhanded the puck to Teravainen, who, from above the left circle, swept what Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper would call a "seeing-eye single" blocker-side past a screened Bishop. Antoine Vermette scored 118 seconds later to give Chicago a 2--1 win. "How many guys can make that play?" Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the 31-year-old Keith, who had 17 assists through Chicago's first 19 playoff games. "He's made some terrific plays ... through sticks, inside coverage. [He] spins off the point in some tight areas."

Yet the quality of Keith's play—his graceful skating, his ability to slither away from contact, his quick passes, all the disparate elements that make up greatness in a defenseman—has been overshadowed in the postseason by the sheer volume of his ice time. The two-time Norris Trophy winner is playing old-time hockey simply by playing half the game. Keith notes that his ice time, in the sweep of history, merits barely more than a shrug. ("I don't have a stopwatch out there," he said before the finals.) Generational defensemen such as Bobby Orr and Larry Robinson did no less. Quenneville dresses six defensemen, per the current custom, but if the coach ever got into a fistfight, he wouldn't trust his bottom two, journeymen David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey, to hold his coat. Even discounting the inflationary triple and double overtimes in the Western Conference finals, Keith has been omnipresent. He has been on the ice for about 84 more even-strength minutes than star Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who has played three more games.

"There's this lure of equality," Chicago general manager Stan Bowman says. "Play your six. But if you have four really good ones, and they can handle it, why wouldn't you play them a lot?"

Keith always has been able to handle it, fueled by a feral desire to play in the NHL and his own unprepossessing size (6'1", 192 pounds). When he moved at 14 from Fort Frances, in western Ontario, to Penticton, in the British Columbia interior, he was appalled that his new hometown had no outdoor rinks, limiting his skating options. Worried that his Fort Frances hockey friends had an advantage, he began plyometric training. "I'd always read stories about Jaromir Jagr doing squats when he was a kid, and Pavel Bure and the way his dad used to train him," Keith said last Friday. "Those things stuck in my head, so I wanted to spend every little second I wasn't in school working on hockey and training."

When Keith arrived at Michigan State in 2001, "he looked like a boy," says Mike Vorkapich, the Spartans' associate head strength-and-conditioning coach. "But from a conditioning standpoint he was a man among boys." Vorkapich puts players through a discontinuous VO2 max test, starting them on a treadmill at six miles per hour with no incline for three minutes, allowing them 90 seconds of rest, then upping the speed and slope in subsequent stages. Most players reach Stage 5, nine mph at an eight-degree incline. Two have completed the sixth stage, future NHL players Shawn Horcoff and Steve Guolla. The only player in Vorkapich's 17 years at Michigan State to enter Dante's seventh circle of aerobic hell (11 mph, 10 degrees) was Keith, who lasted a minute. Vorkapich says, "The average Joe Schmo student's VO2 max would be in the upper 40s. An athlete's would be in the upper 50s. An athlete with an elite [aerobic] system would be mid-60s." Keith scored 71.

"What impresses most is he can come back from a year when he won the Olympics and the Norris [2014] and play the same way, game after game," says Niklas Hjalmarsson, his defense partner. "He could be a great [cross-country] skier or a Tour de France cyclist."

Game 7 is scheduled for next Wednesday. The Tour starts July 4. There is time.

OUTGOING ISLANDERS owner Charles Wang once ruminated about the benefits of staffing the crease with a sumo wrestler, who he presumed would never allow a goal. A healthy Bishop is no rikishi. He is an athletic 214 pounds. Still, his goalie-armored 79 inches cover the goalmouth's 24 square feet—and a multitude of sins. "When you look at [Bishop in] the net," Richards says, "all you see is all goalie."

"That," Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa says, "is the modern goalie."

The gregarious Bishop towers above his profession longitudinally, but he is hardly the only one of his kind. In the Golden Age of NHL goaltending in the 1960s, only the Canadiens' Jacques Plante, among the five Hall of Fame goalies of the generation (Plante, Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall, Terry Sawchuk and Gump Worsley), stood as much as six feet. Of the 60 goalies that played at least 15 games in 2014--15, just four were shorter than six feet. "I used to think it was possible for a goalie to be too big," says Corey Hirsch, one of Bishop's goalie coaches with the Blues, the team that drafted him in the third round in 2005. "I thought 6'2" to 6'4" was the limit because [if you were taller than] that, you couldn't get down into a butterfly quick enough to cover the five hole. But now guys like Ben can stay on the ice and make saves." Another of Bishop's former goalie coaches, Rick Wamsley, was more sanguine. "You can't teach 6'7"," Wamsley liked to say.

Ben Bishop III grew up, and up, in St. Louis. (His father, Ben Jr., is six feet and his mother, Cindy, is 5'4", but her brothers are tall.) He began as a forward and switched positions as a child because, in part, goalies never come off the ice. When Bishop was a freshman at Maine in 2005--06, former Black Bears coach Tim Whitehead recalls, "he looked like an awkward giraffe out there." He roomed with a defenseman, Simon Danis-Pèpin, a 2006 Blackhawks draft pick who had Bishop by almost an inch. When they walked around campus, most students assumed they played basketball.

After leaving Maine in the spring of 2008, Bishop made his first NHL appearance that fall when Blues starter Manny Legace injured his hip tripping on the carpet laid out for vice presidential aspirant Sarah Palin, who was dropping the ceremonial first puck in St. Louis. Following two more often-exasperating years in the Blues system, Bishop was traded to goalie-strapped Ottawa because incumbent starter Craig Anderson had sliced a tendon in his hand in a kitchen accident. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman acquired Bishop in a 2013 trade. Bishop became a Vezina Trophy finalist a year later. Now the 28-year-old owns 2015 playoff wins over the NHL's glamour goalies: Montreal's Carey Price, whom he beat in the second round, and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, his opponent in the Eastern Conference finals.

Bishop is not quite the total package. Unlike 6'5" Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, Bishop is not especially explosive laterally, which makes him vulnerable to rebounds. A couple of shots clanked off his trapper against the Canadiens in the second round. Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban ventured that Bishop was "sitting on a horseshoe" after Bishop was yanked during a Game 4 loss. Following the series-clinching 4--1 win in Game 6, a picture of a horseshoe sat on the seat of Bishop's locker stall, and the goalie announced with a smile, "Thank goodness for my lucky horseshoe." Bishop's two other closeout wins, against the Red Wings and New York, were shutouts.

"Ben knows his limitations, and that helps him," Hirsch said. "Sometimes he looks like things aren't done quite correctly, but he's done an incredible job stopping pucks." He also is a sublime passer. "He's so good, he can look you off and saucer it on his backhand," Richards says. When healthy, of course.

There was unexpected drama heading into Game 3. Cooper, who would rather reveal the PIN for his debit card than discuss playoff injuries, declined to answer questions about Bishop's on-again, off-again third period after Tampa Bay's riotous 4--3 win on Saturday. A laboring Bishop skated off on a delayed penalty with 12:43 remaining, returned after defenseman Jason Garrison scored the game-winning power-play goal 92 seconds later and disappeared for good 3½ minutes after that, replaced by lightly used 20-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is a comparatively petite 6'3" and keeps a Russian Orthodox icon in his locker. If Vasilevskiy, a 2012 first-round pick with a 2.36 goals-against average in 2014--15, backstops the Lightning to the Cup, the stories about Tampa Bay's goaltending won't be about height.

And so, Bishop's concern is the same as Keith's: How much time can he spend on the ice? The Stanley Cup is in the details.

THE CHICAGO--TAMPA BAY FINAL COULD BE BILLED AS A SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER: GODZILLA VS. THE CYBORG.
PHOTOPhotograph by David E. Klutho for Sports IllustratedPLAY THE LONG GAME Bishop (left) stands taller than anyone in net, and Keith (right) makes sure opponents see plenty of the postseason's best player.PHOTOPhotograph by David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by David E. Klutho for Sports IllustratedBLACKHAWK DOWN Paquette (far right) helped the stout Tampa Bay D hold Toews to a single assist through Game 2.