He Is the King of the Bruise

Keith Tkachuk's right thumb was red and stuck out from the rest of his hand at an unnatural angle; the scars above his eyebrow were puffy enough to indicate they had been recently inflicted, too.

Not that Tkachuk, who led the NHL this season with 52 goals, was worried about those injuries or other aches that were less obvious. The Phoenix Coyote captain wears his cuts and bruises proudly, knowing that if he emerges from a game unscathed, he hasn't done his job.

The bumps and bruises that were his souvenirs Sunday were proof he had performed exceptionally well in the Coyotes' 4-1 rout of the Mighty Ducks at America West Arena.

Invigorated by the energy generated by 16,210 fans whose white shirts and frantic pompon-waving created an indoor blizzard, Tkachuk led a furious first-period charge that overwhelmed the Ducks physically and emotionally. Because he was willing to bowl over any opponent who stood between him and the net and equally willing to absorb crosschecks and slashes in order to park himself near Duck goaltender Guy Hebert, the Coyotes were able to cut the Ducks' lead in their Western Conference quarterfinal series to 2-1.

"For me to be successful, I have to go out in the first period and not look for it, but take a hit or give a hit," said Tkachuk, who scored the Coyotes' third goal--his third of the series--to give Phoenix a 3-0 lead at 14:01 of the first period.

"It hurts like hell, but you pay the price all year to get into a situation like this. You sacrifice your body. What hurts most is your pride, because you want to slug 'em back but you can't do it."

Not that he's a pacifist: Tkachuk had 228 penalty minutes this season, the most among the NHL's top 25 scorers, and 28 more than the total of Phoenix enforcer Jim McKenzie. He's one of four players in NHL history who have scored 50 goals and collected 200 penalty minutes in the same season.

But he knows he can't do his team much good if he's in the penalty box, and he has learned to take one--or two or three--for the team without retaliating. And without budging. He is listed on the Coyote roster as 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, and to the Ducks, it seems like all of it is muscle.

"He's impossible to move in front of the net," said Mighty Duck Coach Ron Wilson, who coached Tkachuk on Team USA in last year's World Cup of Hockey. "It's like trying to knock a California redwood down with a pencil.

"The way I look at it, we want to keep him on the perimeter and deny him access to the front of the net."

They failed Sunday and paid for it. After a turnover in the neutral zone, Tkachuk barged past Duck winger Warren Rychel and slipped the puck to his right to Cliff Ronning. He headed directly for the net, where he was in position to redirect Ronning's shot for the Coyotes' third goal on only their fifth shot.

"This is a very intense two months. It's not for people who look for the easy way to do things," Phoenix Coach Don Hay said. "You've got to put your body on the line every shift."

Seeing him almost vault over Duck winger Joe Sacco like a gymnast inspired the Coyotes early in the game to keep driving toward the net and create the distractions and screens they hadn't manufactured in the first two games of the series.

"If I can't go around someone, I'm going to go through them," Tkachuk said.

Wilson called the Coyote goals "three lucky bounces," but it took persistence to have that luck. They couldn't score off finesse plays, but they were masters at scoring what Tkachuk called garbage goals, deflections or rebounds from close range.

"Keith and I talk a lot and we take it upon ourselves to be leaders," forward Jeremy Roenick said. "We have to do whatever we can for this hockey club."

If that means taking a slash on the thumb or a high stick in the face, so be it. As painful as that may be, he's more comfortable setting an example that way than by reciting rah-rah locker room speeches.

"I'm not really going to say much. I'd rather lead by my actions on the ice," he said. "Everybody knows what they've got to do. . . . That was just typical hockey today. Whoever wants it more will get it."

Tkachuk wanted the victory badly enough Sunday to take a fearsome pounding. That makes the stakes in Game 4, to be played Tuesday in Phoenix, as high as his threshold for pain.

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