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Blackhawks ‘freak’ Duncan Keith is NHL’s playoff MVP so far

Chicago Blackhawks and defenceman Duncan Keith.

Tommy Giglio/US PRESSWIRE

"He's kind of a freak."

Coach Joel Quenneville said it nonchalantly, moments after a Game 6 win in which Duncan Keith logged another 29 minutes, assisted on the first three goals and was dancing and dominating all over the ice against the Anaheim Ducks.

Since 2009, the Chicago Blackhawks defenceman has logged more playoffs minutes than anyone in the NHL. In fact, it's not even close.

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His 3,055 minutes over 109 games is first by a mile, nearly 500 ahead of teammate Brent Seabrook and more than 600 beyond Zdeno Chara in third spot.

But what Keith has done in this postseason is unlike any of his other feats, which include two Norris Trophies, two Stanley Cups and filling that No. 1 d-man role on a good team for basically a decade.

He's averaging just shy of 32 minutes – 31 and 49 seconds – a game right now. That's the highest in his career, and it's a couple months from his 32nd birthday. Overtime games are certainly a factor there, but since the NHL began recording time on ice data in 1998, no defenceman has played that amount this deep into the postseason.

There are only two defencemen that have gone this far and played 31 a game: Nick Lidstrom with Detroit during their Cup run in 2002 and Chris Pronger with Edmonton when they lost in 2006.

Keith is playing so much he is two minutes a game clear of what is considered some of the heaviest usage ever, including the 2007 Anaheim Ducks team that barely had a third pair and dealt Pronger and Scott Niedermayer 30 minutes every night.

Keith is playing so much because he has had to, with Chicago's blueline so thin after all the damage the cap has done.

He is playing so much mostly because he can.

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"He's kind of a freak as far as his metabolism and conditioning level," Quenneville said. "I think the more he plays, the more efficient, the more he gets going. Just certain guys genetically, aerobically, anaerobically, they can sustain it. He keeps doing it."

"He's all over the rink," captain Jonathan Toews said. "Seems like he never runs out of energy. Pretty amazing game tonight."

Keith has had a lot of them this postseason.

With the three assists on Wednesday, Keith is now tied for eighth in NHL scoring in the playoffs, with a point-a-game heading into Saturday's Game 7 in Anaheim. Since this iteration of the Blackhawks first made the postseason back in 2009, he now has 70 points, 12 clear of second-place Dan Boyle and 20 more than other superstars like Drew Doughty in the top five.

But the offensive totals hardly do justice to what he brings to this team, especially now, with one top six blueliner done for the year with a broken ankle and the others in the top four taxed to their max. At an age when he should be slowing down, Keith isn't only eating minutes: He's changing the entire pace of the game when he's on the ice.

This is where some of hockey's newer statistics are useful. Heading into Wednesday's game, for example, the Blackhawks had a 56.5 per cent possession rating with Keith on the ice and only a 48.4 per cent one without him, a dramatic shift made all the more impressive when you consider he has faced opponents' top lines against three very good teams – Nashville, Minnesota and now Anaheim – through three rounds.

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The only other blueliner doing that and having a similar impact in this postseason is Tampa's Victor Hedman, who is playing 8.5 fewer minutes a game.

As players, the two could hardly be more different, physically. Hedman's gifts are immediately obvious giving his massive frame and unbelievably quick feet, gifts that made him a no-brainer pick at second overall six years ago and that, at 24 years old, he is only beginning to get credit for.

Keith is a different beast – or freak – in that he is a small man, by NHL standards, and his talents were less apparent to scouts all along the way. He wasn't drafted until 54th overall; he wasn't in the NHL at all until he was 22, on a then-basement-dwelling Blackhawks team.

He took the road less travelled; at the end of it, it's turned out he's a Hall of Famer and one of the best defencemen of this generation.

What he brings is obvious. In a must-win Game 6, Keith was the catalyst in breaking open a scoreless affair with helpers on Chicago's string of three unanswered goals in under four minutes in the second period.

On the first, he took a long look from his own end and passed from the hashmarks of the faceoff circle to centre ice to Patrick Kane, who made a one-touch handoff that sprung Brandon Saad on a breakaway.

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On the second, he faked a shot twice deep in the Ducks zone and made a no-look pass to a wide open Marian Hossa for a relative tap-in for the vet.

On the third, he grabbed a high Anaheim dump out to hold the line, banged it to Kane along the boards and let him do the rest.

They were all fast plays, which makes sense given how fast of a game the NHL has become.

"Skilled, careful hockey doesn't win. You've got to play reckless," St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had explained earlier in the day, the lament of one of the game's brightest men who has had to watch from the sidelines since Round 1. "The four fastest teams in the league are playing right now."

Keith is a huge reason the Blackhawks are in that group. He plays half the game, and he somehow pushes the pace in every shift. But playing fast isn't only about his marvelous skating; it's about thinking fast, something that's become harder to do as the sport shifts into hyper-drive.

Keith's strength isn't so much that he's in better shape than everyone else; his strength is that he doesn't need to be because he knows where to be on the ice. ("I think everybody in the game today nowadays trains hard," he said.)

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He's efficient. And you can see his teammates looking for him on the ice, trying to find their quarterback, the only one on the ice who can spot the hard-to-see seam for a pass through traffic or walk the blueline to create an opening.

With both conference finals headed to Game 7s, Keith has to be one of the top two or three front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy. In a postseason filled with standout performances from players like Tyler Johnson, Ryan Getzlaf and Henrik Lundqvist, Keith is right there.

What may put him over the top is he's doing something that hasn't been done in recent league history – not by even Lidstrom, or Pronger – and making it look downright routine.

"He's probably our most important guy," fellow defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson told reporters after the game, no small statement given the way Toews and Kane have played in this postseason.

"He's Duncan Keith for a reason," teammate Bryan Bickell added.

And everyone knew what he meant.

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Highest minute players, single playoff year

PlayerTeamYearMin/GP
Duncan KeithCHI201531.9
Drew DoughtyLA201428.8
Zdeno CharaBOS201329.5
Dan GirardiNYR201226.9
Zdeno CharaBOS201127.7
Chris ProngerPHI201029.0
Joni PitkanenCAR200926.5
Nicklas LidstromDET200826.8
Nicklas LidstromDET200730.6
Chris ProngerEDM200631.0
Scott HannanSJ200426.6
Filip KubaMIN200326.8
Nicklas LidstromDET200231.2
Rob BlakeCOL200129.4
Eric DesjardinsPHI200028.0
Sergei ZubovDAL199930.3
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