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Thursday, May 27, 2010
Mullets, underdogs and second chances

ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- It may not have the pizzazz of the Super Bowl's now famous media day -- we didn't see the Cartoon Network working the room at the United Center on Thursday -- but the NHL's annual pre-Stanley Cup finals event has definitely evolved into a big day on the playoff calendar.

There is a bit of a carnival feel with the broadcasters and roving bands of journalists moving from table to table, and the players sporting their cool new hoodies. And there is never a shortage of anecdotes and stories to be told as the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers gear up for Game 1 on Saturday night.

'Billy Ray with a touch of Vanilla Ice'

Take Patrick Kane and the ongoing debate/discussion about his mullet, a hairstyle that has taken Chicago by storm and recently got a fresh update for the NHL championships.

"I got it touched up the other day. It's ready to go for the Stanley Cup finals," Kane said Thursday.

The Hawks star forward has sported the look all playoffs long, a total early-'90s throwback. He told ESPN.com earlier this spring he went into the barbershop and asked for a "Billy Ray Cyrus with a touch of Vanilla Ice on the sides."

Kane was asked if the ladies around town have reacted well to it.

"I wish I could tell you, but around town, I haven't been doing much," he said. "But when you go out to dinner, it seems like you get recognized pretty easy. I don't know if it's the haircut or people just excited about the Blackhawks."

Then, he pondered the ladies question again and turned to a female media member near him and said, "Well, what do you think of this?"

"It's nice," she responded.

"To be honest, I think some of the girls like it," said Kane, satisfied. "But who knows if it's the hair or who I am. You never know, I guess."

The future of the mullet? Depends on what happens in this series.

"If we win the Cup, I might have to keep it for a while," said Kane. "I was talking to my barber about it the other day and he was saying we could probably get it Jagr-esque if I kept it for the whole summer. We'll see. If we win the Cup, I might come back with it."

Dental talk

We never get tired of talking to guys who either get their melon rocked by a shot or end up swallowing a bunch of teeth after blocking a shot. It's like the roadside accident except you get to ask questions of someone who's actually been in the accident.

Which is why, even now, we never get tired of hearing Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith talk about taking a puck to the mouth in Game 4 against San Jose and then returning to help close out the sweep of the Sharks. Someone asked Keith on Thursday if he had been wearing a cage would it have saved his seven teeth? He seemed perplexed about the idea of even wearing a cage.

"I don't know, I don't know. Maybe it would have, but I don't really care," said Keith, whose missing teeth and the damage done to his mouth make him sound like Mumbles from "The Flintstones."

Funny how people think it's a comical thing, though. Even Keith's mom got in on the action. "My mom asked me, 'What did the puck taste like?'" Keith said.

Is he tired about all the dental talk?

"Obviously in playoffs, everything's kind of magnified, and maybe if this would have happened in the regular season, there wouldn't have been that much attention, but it's not something that bothers me," he said. "I kind of understand and accept it, but obviously I'd like to have my teeth back."

Further on the discussion about missing chicklets, Philadelphia defenseman Kimmo Timonen admitted he lost all his upper teeth to a stick.

"If you're going to play hockey, you're going to lose some teeth," Timonen said. "It doesn't matter how you're going to play. That's just the reality, I think."

Timonen is also sporting a pretty decent shiner thanks to a collision in Game 5 against Montreal. "That was actually my own helmet hitting my [head]," he said.

He called up some of his old teammates in Nashville to try to get a sense of how the Predators managed to have success early on in their first-round series against Chicago.

"They were saying that Chicago is a quick team with a lot of skill and their D-men can really move the puck and they can jump into the play," said Timonen. "They were saying to me that they tried to play physical hockey and tried to limit their D jumping into the play. That's going to be one key for us."

After a dozen NHL campaigns, Timonen is in his first Stanley Cup finals and has been on the phone with his family and friends in Finland, many of whom who will make the trip to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4.

"It does feel good. It's a long journey, I can tell you that, to get to this point," he said. "It takes a lot of good games, bad games, bad times, good times. But we're finally here. We are really happy and confident with this team, but we're not done here and we're ready to go."

Underdogs? Puh-lease

Flyers captain Mike Richards doesn't think much of the underdog status the seventh seeds from the East have been labeled with for the Cup finals.

"I think it's the media that gives us that underdog logo," Richards said Thursday. "We're confident in our group and we wouldn't consider ourselves underdogs. But somebody has to be in the series and you guys labeled us. I guess it's there for you guys to talk about."

To Richards' point, his team was indeed a popular pick last fall as a potential Eastern Conference champion. That the Flyers needed to win a shootout over the New York Rangers on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the postseason boggles the mind as to how this talented a squad nearly blew the season.

What happened this season?

"We had a lot of personnel change, obviously with the coach," said Richards, referring to the firing of John Stevens and hiring of Peter Laviolette. "That was the toughest thing to go through this year, especially for myself. It was a roller-coaster year. We had a lot of injuries, we had people in and out of the lineup, we had things going on that maybe might have been distractions. Once we got to March and close to the playoffs, we thought maybe if we could just get in, we could see what happens. When the playoffs came, we just started playing hockey instead of worrying about everything else going around."

Who hates me now?

Chicago agitator Dave Bolland got the Sedins to blow a gasket and Joe Thornton to nearly chop his wrist off on a faceoff. They hated him. Now, he's got new targets.

"I didn't get a lot of love from the Sedin brothers and Joe -- those are three great players. Now, it moves on to [Jeff] Carter and Richards," the Blackhawks center said with a smile Thursday.

Bolland played against them in the Ontario Hockey League.

"So I know what they're like. It should be fun. Those are two great players," said Bolland. "I'm looking forward to playing against them."

Carter smiled when asked about the pesky Bolland.

"I know Boles real well, actually," said Carter. "He played in London [OHL] and I'm from London. He's doing a great job for them. He's one of those guys that just has that personality on the ice, that gets under your skin. I watched the Sharks series and he got under Joe's skin quite a bit. That's what he's doing and he's doing a good job of it. We're going to have to keep our cool."

Speaking of Carter, being here is especially sweet for a guy whose season looked as though it was over a few weeks ago.

"I was pretty down when they told me I was pretty much done for the year," Carter said Thursday. "I was happy for the guys, but it's pretty tough to sit there and watch knowing you can't get back out there."

Honestly, he said, he never for a moment thought he would play again this season after suffering a broken foot in Game 4 against New Jersey in the opening round.

"I was told that my playoffs were done," said Carter. "I was four weeks without putting pressure on my leg. I wasn't rehabbing, I wasn't doing anything. I was just hanging out and watching a few games and laying on the couch. I was doing absolutely nothing. Then I got a call, I guess it was basically a week ago from our trainer, that there was a possibility I might be able to start skating again. Next thing you know, I'm back in the lineup."

Not just back in the lineup, but looking pretty dangerous in his second game back.

"I was actually surprised," he said. "I skated twice, had two decent practices before I played in Game 4 [against Montreal in the last round]. I surprised myself with the way that I felt. That Game 5 in Philly, I thought I had some extra jump compared to Game 4. I was happy with the way things went."

The cult figure

Speaking of gruesome injuries, Philadelphia forward Ian Laperriere has become something of a cult figure after first blocking a shot in Game 5 of the opening round of the playoffs against New Jersey, and then returning to action after that shot left him with a brain contusion and a concussion.

"I thought I was blind in one eye for about 10 minutes after that," Laperriere said.

He said blocking shots is simply part of the territory when you play the style he's been playing his entire career. That said, he's promised his wife he'll don a visor next season even though he never thought about it until this spring.

"I'm 36 years old," he said. "I don't think anybody would want me if I'm just a grinder who doesn't fight or who doesn't block shots. That was my reason. Maybe it's a stupid reason not to wear a shield, but it worked for me for 15 years before I took one in the face."

The Montreal native grew up idolizing not Guy Lafleur, but defensive specialist Guy Carbonneau. Then, when Laperriere joined the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, he got a chance to play with his boyhood idol.

"I did look up to Guy Lafleur too, but I kind of knew really early that I wasn't going to be Guy Lafleur, and one model on and off the ice I looked up to was Guy Carbonneau, the way he blocked shots, the way he sacrificed his body for his team, it was always about the team," he said.

A second chance

When you get to the Stanley Cup finals, there are always a handful of players whose presence here is a kind of spectacular bonus after trying times. They may not be star players or even in the lineup; but after enduring injuries or trades or bad situations, soaking in the atmosphere at a Cup finals is like finding the pot of gold.

Take Blair Betts.

A staple with one of the league's top penalty-killing units in New York the last couple of years, Betts didn't fit into the Rangers' salary structure and spent the summer as a free agent looking for a home.

"It was a pretty disappointing summer if you go back that far," Betts told ESPN.com. "We kind of waited to the last minute to finally make a decision, hoping to get a contract from someone and it just didn't happen."

Hoping to catch on with a team that was familiar with his significant defensive skills, Betts went on a tryout basis to the Philadelphia Flyers' training camp. Although things went well, cap issues kept Betts from really being made part of the team until the eve of the regular season.

"It wasn't until I think maybe the day that we were leaving, the day before our first regular-season game, we were hopping on a plane that day and the contract finally got done. Seems like a lifetime ago," said Betts.

"It was difficult in training camp because I didn't have a contract. I knew of a lot of the players from playing against them a lot. It was a little uncomfortable. You want to kind of open yourself up and feel like part of the team, but at the same time, you don't have a contract, you're trying out."

Another player who is taking the time to smell the Stanley Cup finals roses is Hawks veteran defenseman Nick Boynton.

"It's awesome. From where I was at the start of February to now, I couldn't be happier," Boynton told ESPN.com. "Thank my lucky stars, but it was tough in the middle of the year and now I'm just fortunate to get to go on this ride with these guys. Where do I start?"

At the start of the season, Boynton signed with Anaheim and played 42 games before being demoted to the Ducks' farm team in Manitoba. He was there when the Blackhawks acquired him for future considerations and was sent to the Hawks' AHL team in Rockford. But when Brian Campbell went down with an injury, Boynton was recalled and has been with the big club ever since.

He's not likely to see any action barring injury, but for a guy who last saw action in the 2004 NHL playoffs, this is a pretty good vantage point.

"Just a few months ago, I wouldn't have expected this. But I lucked out. I couldn't be happier," he said.

Boynton has two daughters who live in Arizona, where he was playing a couple of seasons ago.

"I get to see them once a month, but that's better than nothing," Boynton said. "They're just little, they're 2 and 4, they know I'm playing hockey."

A different team

Brian Campbell was part of the Blackhawks team that lost against Detroit in last season's Western Conference finals. It might have seemed like a small step the Hawks had to take to get to this point, but Campbell said it wasn't.

"Last year, I think we looked at it at the end of the year and we weren't even close," Campbell said. "This year, we're a lot more professional about it. We don't take things for granted. We don't get too hyped up over things that we did last year. I think that's the best thing about it, the growth that we've seen in the team."

The smooth-skating defenseman has also enjoyed a renaissance in Chicago. The native of Strathroy, Ontario, and former Buffalo Sabre and San Jose Shark has embraced the passion the city has shown for this hockey team.

"I think the best thing I saw the other night near the end of the game, they showed a dad holding a kid in his arms and they were both jumping up and down and there's probably about two minutes left. That's a memory I'd love to have," he said. "I had a lot of great memories with my dad, but that's something that I don't think that kid hopefully will ever forget. It's kind of touching. That's how it should be. It should be like that.

"If you live in Chicago, you should be able to come to a hockey game and have that with a full crowd and enjoy those times with your dad or your mom. It's great to see."

Just call him 'Jelly'

We remember talking to former Hawks GM Dale Tallon about this Swedish kid the Hawks had drafted back in 2005. The way Niklas Hjalmarsson could move the puck and unleash a hellacious body check reminded Tallon of Red Wings top young defenseman Niklas Kronwall.

That's a pretty heady comparison, but Hjalmarsson has quickly become a key part of the Blackhawks' defense, skating alongside Brian Campbell on the team's second defensive unit. He also holds the distinction of having the name most difficult to pronounce on the squad.

For the record, it's pronounced "Yalmarsson." His teammates call him "Jelly."

"Jalmarsson is fine, too," he told ESPN.com. "I live in the U.S. now, so it's the way you say it, so it's OK. In the beginning, I don't know how many people came to me and asked how to pronounce my last name. I heard all kind of weird pronunciations. It was kind of funny, actually."

This is the 22-year-old's first full NHL season (he will turn 23 during the finals) and he's trying to soak it up even if the season is now stretching into its 10th month.

"It's tough. It just feels like you're just going to play for the whole summer pretty much. It's a never-ending thing," he said. "It's just go all-in and give 110 percent and that's what everyone's going to do. It's going to be tough out there, and that's the way I like to play it. It's going to be a battle for every inch out there and it's going to be a lot of fun."

The task at hand

Talking to Hawks blueliner Brent Seabrook on Thursday reminded us of a conversation we had with him in Vancouver during the Olympics.

He was asked if he would do much sightseeing on his off days.

"No," he said abruptly in February. "I want to win a gold medal. My mom and dad are staying down here with my girlfriend downtown at a hotel. They're going to take some events in. I don't know what they're going to do, but I'll leave that up to them. I want to go out and try and play well."

On Thursday, we asked Seabrook if he'd thought about the possibility of having a campaign that included a gold medal and Stanley Cup ring. He was similarly not interested in thinking about anything but the task at hand.

"I'm trying not to think about that," said Seabrook. "Obviously, you can't not think about winning a gold medal with everyone coming over and wanting to see it and stuff like that; but at the same time, I just want to focus on now, focus on Game 1, focus on having a good start to the game and getting out there and trying to win the first one."

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.