ST. PAUL, Minn. — Duncan Keith wasn’t worried about the Minnesota Wild’s growing confidence against the Blackhawks. Asked Tuesday morning if the Wild’s looming season sweep against the Hawks had erased their mental edge after they ousted Minnesota from the playoffs in three straight years, Keith shrugged.
“I’m not really in their head or in their minds, so I don’t know how they think,” Keith said. “But at the end of the day, you use the regular season to get in the playoffs. It’s what you do in the playoffs that matters.”
Well, Keith might not be doing anything until the playoffs.
Keith was ejected from Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Wild for a dangerous stick-swinging incident and likely faces a suspension. The Hawks only have five games left in the regular season. The cynical way of looking at it is some time off for Keith — who logged heavy minutes in winning the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring — before the playoff grind wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. The truth is the sputtering Hawks can ill-afford to be without one of their best players for any extended period of time as they try to stay ahead of the Nashville Predators for third place.
“We’ve done it before,” Jonathan Toews said about playing without Keith. “Obviously, [we know] what Duncs means to us. Whatever happens, we’ll make the best of any situation. That’s the only way we can look at it.”
Keith wasn’t available for comment after the game, and Joel Quenneville didn’t want to talk about the play.
Midway through the first period, Keith fell on his back and took a one-handed swipe of his stick across Charlie Coyle’s face — drawing blood — as he rolled over to get back up. Keith was assessed a match penalty for “intent to injure.” The match penalty carries an ejection and an automatic suspension pending league review (not all match penalties lead to suspensions, however; often, the ejection is considered enough).
A league source said the Department of Player Safety was already reviewing the incident. The nature of Keith’s infraction, and the fact that he’s been suspended twice before — five games for an elbow to Daniel Sedin in 2012 and one game for a stick-swing on Jeff Carter in the 2013 Western Conference final — won’t help his cause. Keith is not considered a repeat offender because the previous suspension was more than 18 months ago, but that only affects the amount of salary forfeited, not the length of a suspension.
Keith’s early ejection left the Hawks woefully shorthanded. Brent Seabrook was a late scratch with an illness, Artem Anisimov missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury, and Corey Crawford missed his seventh straight game with what a source said is a head injury.
“It definitely was a tough job for our five [defensemen],” said Marian Hossa, who scored a shorthanded goal — the 499th tally of his career — as the Hawks killed off Keith’s five-minute major. “It’s not easy to play without the top two Ds.”
Oddly enough, the Hawks had one of their best defensive efforts as a team without their two mainstays, whom they’ve never played without since they entered the league in 2005-06. They held Minnesota to just 18 shots on goal. But two early third-period goals doomed them in the loss, as home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs continues to look more unlikely by the day. The Blues and Stars both won Tuesday night, moving them six points ahead of the Hawks. Each team has five games left.
According to Elias, the Wild are the first team to win every game against the Hawks in a season (five games or more) since the Bruins went 8-0 in the 1938-39 season.
“You know, if we would’ve won tonight, we wouldn’t be satisfied with 1-4,” Toews said. “It adds insult to injury to lose this one tonight. … It’s not fun to look back and have a record like that against a team in your division, especially a team like Minnesota. It’s not something we’re happy about.”
The Wild got a quick start as Jarret Stoll kept the puck on a 2-on-1 and fired a shot past Scott Darling just 2:37 into the game. Keith’s penalty put the Wild in prime position to make it yet another rout, but Toews set up Hossa for the shorthanded goal, and the resurgent Hawks penalty-kill kept Minnesota off the board.
The second period was a slog for both teams; 34 minutes into the game, the Hawks had just seven shots on goal. But the Hawks’ patchwork defense finally cracked in the third. Jared Spurgeon got behind the defense and scored off a Mikko Koivu pass at 4:07 of the third, and Erik Haula added a crucial insurance goal at 11:03.
The Hawks had one last chance to get back in the game with a late power play, but they came up empty for the 26th straight time, spanning nine games. Nino Niederreiter added an empty-net goal with 1:19 left.
“We did a good job of recognizing the fact we were short-staffed defensively,” Toews said. “For the most part, we played pretty well defensively. We just got caught and gave them those rush chances again.”