OTTAWA – Duncan Keith actually looks pretty good these days. His color is good, he looks robust and there is nary a hint of sunken cheeks. Enjoy it while you can because if things go according to plan, there’s a good chance Keith will morph into an emaciated mess, one barely capable of lifting a 34.5-pound trophy over his head on a sultry night sometime in June.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been relative lightweights when it comes to winning streaks this season. The most they’ve ever strung together so far has been seven, not even close to the 10-gamers posted by the Calgary Flames and Philadelphia Flyers, even further from the 12-game streak the Minnesota Wild had in December and not even in the same area code as the 16-spot put up by the Columbus Blue Jackets that spanned 37 days. But the Blackhawks find themselves in a very familiar place, atop the standings in the Western Conference, three points clear of the Wild – a team they trailed by nine points a month ago - after a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators in which Keith scored a goal.
Keith is also occupying a familiar space. He’s averaging 25:45 in ice time per game, which is good for sixth in the NHL and his highest average in five seasons. But for Keith, playing 25 minutes a game in the regular season is child’s play. Only once in his career, when he made his playoff debut in 2008-09, has Keith averaged under 25 minutes a game in the playoffs. In the eight post-seasons in which he’s appeared, Keith has averaged 30-plus minutes three times, including each of the past two seasons. And two years ago when the Blackhawks won their last Cup, they did it largely on the backs of Conn Smyth Trophy winner Keith and the efforts of Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
With the acquisition of Oduya at the trade deadline, the four (work)horsemen are together again. And if the need arises, they’ll all log enormous numbers of minutes, led by Keith. The playoffs start in less than a month, so it would stand to reason that Keith is gearing up for the possibility of spending 30 hard minutes a game on the ice every other night for a couple of months.
“Not right now, but the plan is to be ready to go when playoffs start,” Keith said. “We want to be smart with how we take care of ourselves and playing the game the right way. I know what you’re kind of saying there.”
Keith is quick to point out, however, that the Blackhawks are a lot deeper on defense than they’ve been in the past. And he’s right. They actually have eight defensemen who can contribute at the NHL level, which should help. But the playoffs are a completely different animal and the Blackhawks have been so good because they’ve given their top players a lot of responsibility and those players have proved to be up to the task every time.
“We’ve got a great defensive corps and we have two good players who are not playing in (Michal) Kempny and (Michal) Rozsival,” Keith said. “We’ve got good depth and I like our defense. It’s always easy to say on paper it should work, but it’s a matter of going and executing and every year is different. It’s just playing in the moment, being in the present and executing when the time comes.”
Nobody knows that better than Keith, who’s pretty good at executing at the right times. So is Seabrook, who seems to score more big playoff goals than any other defenseman in the game. Hjalmarsson is and always has been an underappreciated defensive stalwart and has been Keith’s defense partner of late, while Oduya probably won’t play as much as he did in the playoffs two years ago, but is still capable of forming a formidable tandem with Seabrook. Brian Campbell can eat some minutes and it’s pretty clear the trust level with Trevor van Riemsdyk is higher than it was in the playoffs two years ago.
“We’ve got a lot more depth,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “No matter who’s on the ice, we’re comfortable. We’re eight deep and a lot of guys have experience. And hopefully we get a little more balance and I would foresee everybody getting a chance to play and the minutes wouldn’t be distributed as frequent to those guys.”
But if you had to…
“It’s not a bad option,” Quenneville said with a wry smile.
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