CHICAGO — Duncan Keith never had size. Growing up, he was told he was too small to make the NHL, let alone excel in the NHL. After the Chicago Blackhawks drafted him in the second round in 2002, he needed three years in college, junior and the minors to grow.
What he always had, though, was talent and attitude. He’ll show you. He’ll outwork everyone off the ice so he can outplay everyone on it. He’ll never be satisfied.
“I’ve always taken pride in working out and training,” Keith said. “When I was younger, I was never a big guy. I’m still not the biggest guy. It’s a way to try and maybe even the playing field in some ways. I’m smaller, so try to use everything I can to my advantage.”
Now listed at all of 192 pounds at age 31, Keith has won two Olympic gold medals, two Stanley Cups and two Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman – and might be on the verge of more.
In a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night that forced a Game 7 in the Western Conference final, he set up three straight goals in the second period and saved a would-be tying goal in the third.
Logging ridiculous minutes and playing at the highest level in these playoffs, he is a leading contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
“If the definition is ‘most valuable player,’ ” said Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, who won the Conn Smythe in 2013, “I don’t see why he wouldn’t be up for that.”
Keith won’t beat you by beating you up. But he’ll beat you with his head, hands and heart.
When he doesn’t have the puck, he takes it away by closing quickly, positioning himself, using his stick, forcing you to do something before you want to. When he has the puck, he doesn’t just do the simplest thing, giving it to the first guy he sees, throwing it off the glass and out. He holds onto it. He makes a play.
The Blackhawks have a team that takes advantage of his skill set. They have fast, smart, skilled forwards. He gets them the puck. He helps make them go.
They rode him hard when he won the Norris and they won the Cup in 2009-10 – and harder still after they parted with half the roster in a salary-cap purge. As they rebuilt their supporting cast, they reduced his ice time. Less was more. They won the Cup again in 2013, and he won his second Norris last season.
“He’s not pacing himself,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman last season. “If you’re playing 28, 30 minutes a night, it’s hard to be up joining the rush and being involved when you know you’re going to play every other shift. It’s good that his minutes are a little lower.”
The Blackhawks have gone back to riding Keith hard in these playoffs because of four multiple-overtime games and a thin blue line, which was thinned further when Michal Rozsival went down with an ankle injury in the second round.
Keith leads all NHL skaters in total ice time at 509 minutes and 13 seconds. He has played 66 minutes and 42 seconds more than the next closest man, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman, even though he has played 16 games and Hedman has played 19.
He leads all NHL skaters in average ice time at 31 minutes and 49 seconds. He is averaging four minutes and 42 seconds more than anyone else who has played more than six games.
The least he has played is 24:05, which would rank 22nd among skaters in average ice time. He has played at least 28 minutes in 11 games. He has played as much as 49:51, in a triple-overtime thriller in Game 2 of this series, almost 50 minutes of hockey.
But he isn’t just enduring. He’s making a difference. He has two goals and 14 assists for 16 points, ranking second overall in assists and first among defensemen in scoring. His plus-11 rating leads the league.
He’s not pacing himself.
“It seems like he never runs out of energy,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
Keith did it all Wednesday night in 28:35 of ice time.
He held the puck patiently in the Chicago zone, waited for the play to develop and fired the puck up the middle. Kane dropped it at center ice for a streaking Brandon Saad, who broke behind the defense, scored on a breakaway and gave the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead.
He took a pass at the top of the left circle and raised his stick as if to shoot. He stickhandled. He raised his stick again. Then he pivoted and fired a pass into the low right circle for Marian Hossa, who deposited the puck in the net before the goalie could recover. The Blackhawks led, 2-0.
He gloved the puck just inside the Anaheim blue line, raising his right hand high up to knock it down. Then he fed Kane, who danced around a defender and scored a gorgeous goal. In a span of 3:45, the Blackhawks took a 3-0 lead.
Finally, after the Ducks cut it to 3-2 in the third, he swiped a puck out of the crease that was inches from the goal line, just off the right post. The puck goes in, the game is tied, and who knows what happens?
“The plays he makes …” said Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, his voice trailing off. “He’s a great player.”
In training camp, Keith finishes at or near the top of team fitness testing. This time of year, he eats a ton. He replaces fluids as fast as he can. He gets his rest like he should. He’ll show you.
“He’s kind of a freak as far as his metabolism, his conditioning level,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “I think the more he plays, the more efficient, the more he gets going. Certain guys genetically, aerobically or anaerobically, they can sustain it. He keeps doing it.”
And doing it, and doing it, and …
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