CHICAGO – The words that came out of Duncan Keith's mouth on Friday afternoon struggled to escape but eventually tumbled out for the whole world's consumption.
Once out, however, those words put into perspective a turbulent season for him and his teammates on the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks – who have momentum but still trail the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series despite winning the last two games in blowouts.
Keith, who scored a pair of goals and assisted on two others in Thursday's 5-0 rout at Rogers Arena, was asked about his roller-coaster season – in which he often didn't seem like himself. His answer was stunning, matter-of-fact and probably indicative of how many defending Cup champions feel the season after finishing on top.
"This year for me was frustrating," the reigning Norris Trophy winner said at O'Hare Airport after the Hawks returned from Vancouver. "I felt like it had really good stretches and then there (were) times I would just … I don't want to say … lose focus, but just was not really … interested for whatever reason."
His face contorted as he spoke, like a kid swallowing a dose of cough medicine. Yet there was still more to get off his chest.
"I'm not explaining it right, but I would just have good stretches and bad stretches and more inconsistency than I would've liked," Keith said. "It's frustrating, but I look at it like, I don't know, I played a lot of games the year before and there's things I probably could've done differently to prepare for this season. I like to work out and train a lot and feel good going into the season, and I'm not making any excuses but I didn't feel … excited, coming back to start a season. So, that's just being honest."
Excruciatingly so, because it's no easy chore for a professional athlete to admit there is such a thing as mental fatigue – let alone the dreaded "Stanley Cup Hangover" many former Cup champions cite as a real thing.
"Once you get on a bad start that you don't like and are not happy with, it's tough to get out of and (it can) kind of can snowball in some ways," said Keith, who's had a huge role in the Hawks' back-to-back wins. "You think you're getting out of it and it comes back and it becomes a mental thing. It makes you appreciate having a good start."
It can also take something you're not expecting to snap you out of it.
It's probably getting cliché to say the hit that Vancouver's Raffi Torres put on Keith's long-time friend and defense partner Brent Seabrook in Game 3 woke up the Blackhawks. It's also the truth, at least as it pertains to Keith – who hung Seabrook's sweater in his locker for Game 5 after Seabrook sat out a second straight game in the series.
Torres was penalized for the hit but not suspended by the League. Ever since, Keith has played like it's up to him to punish Torres and the Canucks on the scoreboard -- and he's playing arguably his best hockey all season.
Point shots are not only getting through more often , they're denting the back of the net. Pucks in front of the Hawks' crease that had been eluding Keith are now finding the blade of his stick and being cleared to safety. He's even mixing it up in post-whistle scrums – which he's done in the past, but not always with the fervor and passion he showed in Game 4 and Game 5 without Seabrook.
"He lost his buddy on the back end," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "There's a big void without (Seabrook) back there ... Certainly (Keith's) absorbing some of that responsibility that Seabs brings. He's a competitive guy, and he's not accepting the way things have gotten along here. I like the way he's taken charge."
The guy Seabrook named "Captain Serious" – Hawks captain Jonathan Toews – likes it, too.
"He was just all over the place and there wasn't anything he wasn't doing (in Game 5)," Toews said. "He was getting into the mix after the whistles. He wasn't afraid to get in there. He showed that in Game 4. He's been deadly with his shot from the point, and whether it's power play or penalty kill he's our top guy right now."
He's also much more into it mentally. The grind of a tough season is behind both Keith and the Hawks, and those who remember what it felt like a year ago are starting to get that old winning moxie back. Last year's brash Hawks, who oozed swagger, are rearing their heads in this series.
The Canucks would be wise to put an end to it on Sunday night in Game 6 at the United Center -- because if they don't, the swell of momentum Chicago is riding could barrel them over for good in Game 7 back at Rogers Arena.
Yes, the Hawks are still teetering on the edge of extinction -- but the doldrums of the "Cup Hangover" are long behind them. It's the playoffs now, and they feel like this is their time to shine.
"I don't know why it was like that this year, but it was and I think we're all enjoying the competition now and being in these type of games, with all this action and the pressure and everything that comes with it in the playoffs," Keith said. "You play in those pressure-packed games with all the eyes watching and you kind of learn how to deal with that and enjoy it. I think our team is enjoying it and having fun right now."