Keith carrying impressive load for Blackhawks
With his boundless energy, the two-time Norris Trophy winner is playing a huge role for a team eyeing its third Stanley Cup in six years.
He's not the only defensemen carrying a big load. The Blackhawks are a bit short-handed in that area, a concern as they try to erase a 2-1 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup finals.
Game 4 is Wednesday and they could be without Johnny Oduya. But whether he suits up or not, the Blackhawks will still have one of the game's best defensemen on their side in Keith.
''He's one of those special, special athletes that, you know, won't give up,'' teammate Brent Seabrook said. ''He's fun to have been around and watched him progress into this player that he is. I think, like I said, he's got so many great qualities that set him apart from different players in the league that make him great.''
Keith leads the league with a plus-14 rating in these playoffs and has been nothing short of a workhorse for the Blackhawks.
He is averaging 31 minutes, 20 seconds in the postseason and has played at least 40 minutes in three overtime games. In another game, he came within nine seconds of that mark, and he's doing it in an age where the tempo is quick. Teams are on the move, looking to push the pace.
Keith, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom are the only defensemen to log more than 31 minutes per game in a significant playoff run since 2001, according to STATS. His 18 assists put him in a tie for fifth on the single postseason list with Ray Bourque and Larry Murphy, trailing only Paul Coffey (25), Al MacInnis (24), Brian Leetch (23) and Bobby Orr (19). And his 20 points are tied for 15th all-time among defensemen.
''I think it's probably harder in this day and age because this game is so fast and quick,'' said New Jersey Devils co-head coach Scott Stevens, who retired as the all-time leader in games played by a defenseman. ''It's a puck pressure game. It's like a track meet. I think when teams are pushing the pace and you're skating, you have no choice but to move and skate yourself. That takes a lot of energy. You need to be in great shape. It's hard to log those minutes.''
Keith certainly isn't the only defenseman carrying a heavy load for the Blackhawks.
They lost Michal Rozsival to a broken ankle in Game 4 of their second-round series against Minnesota. They have been relying primarily on Keith, Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Oduya, and they could be down another man on Wednesday.
Oduya missed part of Monday's loss with an unspecified upper-body injury, and coach Joel Quenneville said ''we'll see on both'' when asked about him and any potential lineup changes in Game 4. He did add: ''I think (Oduya will) be all right. He looked all right today. We'll see how he is tomorrow.''
Still, the last thing the Blackhawks need is to lose another defenseman. The load the top four have been carrying was a big topic of discussion, particularly in the Western Conference finals against Anaheim. Only four of those games were decided in regulation, and when it comes to total minutes for Chicago's defensemen, the numbers in these playoffs are staggering.
Keith is by far tops on the team with 626:48 through 20 games. Second is Seabrook, nearly 100 minutes behind him at 529:53, followed by Hjalmarsson (519:57) and Oduya (494:52). Center Jonathan Toews (423:29) is fifth.
But after Oduya, the drop in total minutes among defensemen is steep, with Rozsival (174:22) followed by Kimmo Timonen (141:23), Kyle Cumiskey (85:13), David Rundblad (37:25) and Trevor van Riemsdyk (9:01).
Quenneville insisted he has not seen any signs of fatigue from that group.
''The guys take care of themselves to a different level,'' he said. ''They prepare to the excitement and importance of the next game. They find ways where they're ready to compete. Whatever is in front of them, they feel the more they get, the better they'll play. They don't mind playing big minutes.''
Stevens, currently second in games played by a defenseman to Chris Chelios, said the toughest part was the mental grind, the swings that come with winning and losing, particularly this time of year. He also believed the more time he got on the ice, the better he performed.
But he realized there was a balance to strike. He preferred shorter shifts with quick breaks rather than long ones.
He said players need to know when to pull back, maybe letting a rush go when they have no chance to catch up. Nutrition and conditioning were key for him, as they are for Keith - who has talked about the importance of both.
Stevens avoided sugar, loaded up on pasta or fish, drank plenty of water, and never went hungry.
''Everyone wants to play a lot, but sometimes too much might (not) be (beneficial) for yourself and the team,'' he said. ''If you have the people there that you can trust in the other minutes and maybe take a bit away from myself and another key defenseman, why not especially if it's going to be a long series or a long playoff run? But when push comes to crunch or it comes to Game 7, I'm sure you'll be ready for the 30 minutes or 32 minutes or whatever it takes at that point.''