CHICAGO — People keep wondering if Duncan Keith is tired. Generally, they ask his coach about how the Chicago Blackhawks’ thin defense corps is doing, about how they’re holding up under a lead-heavy stack of minutes and barrage of physicality from the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference finals. But this line of inquiry nevertheless seems mostly pertinent to Keith, as the two-time Norris Trophy winner’s ice time appetite is insatiable. And there is no point in asking Keith himself if he is tired. Because Duncan Keith will not concede he is tired. He won’t really even concede the idea of being tired, or that he is aware the concept of such a state of being exists. One explanation for this is that he is in fact a cyborg, fueled by energy capsules stored in his shin pads, which are recharged with every skate stride. Or it could be that he is just different, just better, just post-human in some ways. This is more reasonable, if not decisively more likely.
At any rate, this series gets the Game 7 it deserves after the Blackhawks’ 5-2 win in Game 6 at the United Center, a result more or less delivered by an indomitable 31-year-old who has been on the ice now for just about eight and a half full hours this postseason. After eight and a half hours of doing anything, many 30-somethings would be catatonic. After eight hours of playoff hockey, after eight hours of constant movement and duress, Duncan Keith looked like the best player in the world on Wednesday. Oh, sure, there was a nice fat dollop of Patrick Kane wizardry to move things along, too. But Keith triggered all three second-period Chicago goals and cleared away a potential game-tying score from Anaheim in the third, the player with the heaviest postseason workload once again doing all the heavy lifting to save his team.
Previous to Game 6, at least, the Blackhawks were not the most consistent team in this series. They probably weren’t the best team in this series as a result. But they kept coming, this combustible mass of will and portent. It’s not hard to figure out where they get it from.
“We've seen it in previous years in the playoffs, games like tonight where it's must-win,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said of Keith. “You can definitely count on him stepping up and being one of our best players, if not our best player. He's all over the rink. Seems like he never runs out of energy.”
He now has two days to recharge before the winner-take-all matchup Saturday in Anaheim. Keith’s regiment to maintain his stamina is legendary–like, actually legendary, as neither the Blackhawks defenseman nor anyone else really specifies what it is. He seems purposefully oblique about how he trains his obliques, long on wind but not long-winded; asked late Wednesday if he loses weight due to the postseason grind, Keith shrugged. “I don't hardly weigh myself,” he deadpanned, “so I don't know what I weigh.”
There are some theories around the Chicago dressing room that may clarify how this is possible.
“He’s kind of freak, as far as his metabolism and his conditioning level,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “The more he plays, the more efficient [he is] and the more he gets going. Certain guys–genetically, aerobically or anaerobically–they can sustain it. He keeps doing it.”
The significance of that cannot be overstated given Chicago’s depleted blue line. Even before Michal Rozsival was lost to a broken ankle in the second round against the Minnesota Wild, Quenneville regularly deployed his top four defensemen– Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya–far more than he relied on his bottom pairing. With Rozsival and his 15 to 17 minutes gone, the options down the line were even less appealing against Anaheim, which meant more for everyone else.
And a mother of a load lands on Keith’s shoulder pads. He is averaging 31:49 of ice time across 16 games, the highest rate of any player in the postseason. He played 46:19 of a three-overtime win over Nashville in the first round, then 49:51 of a triple-overtime victory over the Ducks in Game 2 and 40:49 of a double-overtime triumph in Game 4. Through all of that, through the throes of hard checks and hard nights, Keith is plus-11 for the playoffs, the best number of any player pursuing the Stanley Cup.
On Wednesday, he controlled almost all the important moments. It was Keith’s snappy pass to exit the zone that found Kane at mid-ice in the second period, with the winger tapping the puck along to Brandon Saad for the breakaway goal that broke a scoreless tie. It was Keith advancing deep into the play on the next goal, patiently probing from the left slot, faking twice before gliding a pass to Marian Hossa for a shot into an open net; Keith had drawn so much attention and been so deliberate that Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen couldn’t have been in poorer position if he was at the outlet malls in Gurnee.
The third Chicago score was notable most for Kane undressing the Ducks’ Matt Beleskey before his score, doing things to the Anaheim winger that at last check are illegal in 39 states and several U.S. territories. It wouldn’t have happened if Keith didn’t glove down a clearing attempt at the blue line and then feed Kane for his ensuing magic act. “Being around a few years now, that’s just expected, really,” Saad said of Keith. “He brings it every night. The minutes he logs, and then the vision he has out there to have a patient game and make those plays, it’s pretty incredible.”
His knack is simply uncanny. The Ducks mounted the comeback that everyone expected in this rollicking series and nearly had it complete in the third period. A Corey Perry shot was half a foot from equalizing the game at 3-3. And then Duncan Keith appeared, jamming a stick blade in the puck’s way and whacking it out of the crease. “He gets to things so fast, he doesn’t let things develop for the other team,” Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford said. And, evidently, he’s at times fast enough to stop a play that already fully developed.
So it is on to Game 7, with specters following each team through the doors of the Honda Center. The Blackhawks lost in this position last season to a California foe, bowing out of the Cup chase in the conference finals to the Kings. The Ducks, meanwhile, have let slip a pair of 3-2 series leads in each of the last two postseasons. That history is sure to grip their throats until Anaheim writhes free, with Saturday as good a chance as any to do that.
The Ducks may have been the better team all series, or all the way until Game 6 anyway. But the Blackhawks keep coming, driven by the inexhaustible force on the back end of it all. When he relented to discuss his personal habits Wednesday, Keith hastened to note that he was just like any other player nowadays, conscientious and diligent, attuned to conditioning in ways that players of the past perhaps were not. “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 a little smaller, so try to use everything I can to my advantage.”
He has something more than everyone else, that’s for sure by now. And now we have Chicago and Anaheim heading back west to plunge into the Game 7 they and the hockey world deserve. The first time Keith was asked about that Wednesday, he said he wasn’t listening, because a questioner addressed the query to Toews first. When Keith got around to his take on the game, he unwittingly offered as lucid and concise an explanation for how he does what he does.
The long shifts bleed into long nights and there are any dozens of problems that he’ll happen by.
The trick is not conceding they’re problems at all.
“Whatever adversity gets thrown our way,” Keith said, “just fight through that and deal with it.”