LOS ANGELES (AP) — If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to end the Los Angeles Kings’ perfect postseason on home ice in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, they’ll have to do it without their top defenseman.
Duncan Keith will sit out Thursday under a one-game suspension for high-sticking Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter. Keith hit Carter with a one-handed blow in the second period of the Kings’ 3-1 victory in Game 3, opening a 20-stitch gash on the star forward’s face and cracking three of his teeth.
Chicago has a 2-1 series lead and could take control with a win in Game 4, but the uncertainty of Keith’s fate hung over both teams’ practices Wednesday. Keith is enormously important to the powerful Blackhawks, easily leading the club in ice time and ranking third in playoff scoring with 10 points.
Sheldon Brookbank, the likely candidate to take Keith’s place in the Blackhawks’ lineup, hasn’t played in the postseason.
“It’s been our strength pretty much all season, our depth on our blue line,” Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said before the suspension was announced. “So whatever happens with that, I think we’re going to be all right. I’m sure if something happens, Brookbank is going to come in and play good. All of the D-men have to step up a little more if that happens.”
Keith, whose ungloved hand was nearly slashed by Carter an instant earlier, got a double minor penalty for his high stick, but was allowed to stay in Game 3. Keith had a hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety Wednesday, but spent the day uneasily waiting for a decision.
“I said my piece,” Keith said before the suspension. “Said the same thing last night, that it was an accident, and I didn’t mean to get him where I got him.”
Keith is classified by the NHL as a repeat offender — a factor in suspension decisions — after elbowing Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin in the head late last season, sidelining Sedin well into the playoffs. San Jose’s Raffi Torres, another repeat offender, was suspended for the rest of the second round after an illegal hit on Los Angeles’ Jarret Stoll in the opener of the clubs’ seven-game series.
Keith attempted to apologize to Carter on the ice, claiming the high stick was an accident. The Kings’ top goal-scorer shrugged off the apology in much the same way he dismissed any concern about his carved-up face Wednesday at Los Angeles’ training complex.
“There’s bigger things to worry about right now,” Carter said, shrugging off his broken teeth with a hockey player’s nonchalance. “We’re in a fight here, down two games to one. I don’t think that’s on our minds.”
Keith is averaging nearly 25 minutes per game in the postseason, nearly four minutes more than any other Blackhawks player. His 10 points are nearly more than the rest of the Chicago defense’s 12 combined points.
The rest of the Kings also tried to downplay the conflict described as “retaliation” by Kings coach Darryl Sutter after the game. Los Angeles already lost Stoll and Mike Richards to head injuries earlier in the postseason, although Stoll has returned and Richards is skating again after a big hit in Game 1 kept him out of the past two games.
“I moved on right after the game,” Sutter said. “Had my feelings on it. I think I’m correct.”
The NHL agreed, and the Blackhawks’ attempt to end the defending Stanley Cup champions’ 15-game home winning streak got tougher.
The Blackhawks realize Keith’s absence won’t matter if they can’t figure out how to crack the Kings’ incredible home-ice advantage. Los Angeles hasn’t lost at Staples Center since March 23, and the Kings have won nine straight playoff games in their downtown building dating to last season’s Stanley Cup clincher.
The Blackhawks gave credit to the Kings’ superb start in Game 3, putting them in an early 1-0 hole and matching Chicago’s urgency from the first two games at United Center. But the Presidents’ Trophy winners are confident they can match the Kings’ start in Game 4.
“I thought we were really prepared for what was coming here in this building, but obviously we were not,” Hjalmarsson said. “They came out flying. We know they’re a tough team. Especially here in this building, they’re a really tough team to beat. We’ve got to step it up and find a way to get back to the way we were playing in Chicago to have a chance to win the next game, because the last game wasn’t good enough, not even close.”
The Kings lost in regulation just four times all season at home, but this dominance is hardly a team tradition. They lost three home playoff games during their 16-4 rampage to the Stanley Cup last season, and they lost five consecutive postseason games at Staples Center during first-round exits in their previous two playoff runs in 2010 and 2011.
And Los Angeles is still struggling to score in its title defense, managing no more than two goals without an empty-netter in its last eight games. Carter and Justin Williams have six goals apiece in Los Angeles’ 16 playoff games, but nobody else has more than defenseman Slava Voynov’s five goals.
Low scores are no surprise in a tense playoff series between two elite teams with strong defenses, but Chicago forward Patrick Kane’s struggles are increasingly inexplicable. The six-time 20-goal scorer hasn’t found the net in seven games, and he’s got just two goals in the postseason after scoring 23 in the lockout-shortened regular season.
Kane realizes the Blackhawks depend on his scoring, and he’s staying confident in his skills.
“You’ve got to give them credit for the way they’re playing defensively,” Kane said of the Kings. “They’ve been a good defensive team for the last three, four years. … In the playoffs, it hasn’t been happening for me for some reason. I don’t know why. Me personally, I think it’s all about willpower, just getting the puck and making things happen that way.”