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?"