Life changed for Duncan Keith last Tuesday morning.
He and wife, Kelly-Rae, welcomed their first child -- 7-pound, 7-ounce Colton Duncan -- into the world, so Mother's Day is a little different, and meaningful, around their home this weekend. The late-morning arrival in Chicago didn't stop Dad from getting on a plane, returning to St.Paul, and suiting up nine hours later for Game Four between the Blackhawks and the Wild. Oh, and he led the team with 23:57 of ice time in the 3-0 victory, despite going about 40 hours without sleep, stress and commuting time included.
A little more than five weeks earlier, the Norris Trophy winner experienced some change on the ice. As these Hawks await the Sunday night Red Wings-Ducks Game 7 that will determine their second-round opponent, it was the day between (ironically) a Friday home loss to Anaheim and a Sunday win in Detroit that Joel Quenneville decided to shuffle his defensive deck, even if they were among the best in the NHL in goals-against average.
For most of their nine seasons together with the Hawks, Keith and Brent Seabrook teamed as the club's top, minutes-munching blue line tag team. The head coach felt all three pairings needed a fresh look, perhaps for the long-term, if it worked out. The heavy-hitting Seabrook got paired with another puck-mover in Nick Leddy. Johnny Oduya would get either Michal Rozsival or Sheldon Brookbank. And Oduya's previous partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, slid over to join Keith. The pairings haven't changed, and for the most part, Quenneville's counted on Hammer and Duncs when opponents roll out their top weapons.
"I played with 'Hammer' one time," Keith said after Saturday's crisp, 45-minute practice at Johnny's IceHouse West. "We were joking around about that. I think it was one game in San Jose, so that's once out of (all or parts of) six seasons, but we played good together that game.
"For me it's easy to play with him. He chips the puck out, gets it in, it's real simple. I think the fact he likes to stay home allows me the confidence to get up in the play, knowing he's gonna be back. It's not that hard. You just read off of each other. Defense is one position where it's all about positioning."
Make no mistake, the comments aren't at all a slight towards his longtime partner and close friend. No one should be surprised if Keith and Seabrook reunite at some point this spring. Keith's also been paired at times over his Hawks career with Leddy, Dustin Byfuglien, and Nick Boynton. But this experiment has worked so far.
"They start with a nice gap in the offensive zone and through the middle of the ice, and it's tough (for opponents) to get the next wave and make it an odd-man break," said Quenneville. "They kill a lot of plays in that area. They've got good sticks, are quick to the puck area, and make a lot of plays."
"Nik's a really good player," added Keith. "He's really underrated and doesn't get a lot of recognition because he doesn't put up a lot of points. But he's got a really good stick, he's tough to beat defensively, and I think players on the other teams know how hard he is to play against."
As the tandem now prepares to see a lot of either Thornton and Couture, or Datsyuk and Zetterberg, they come out of a series in which they played a significant role in holding Minnesota's leading scorers, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, to a combined one point.
"At the end of the day, you have to play them the same way, no matter what. All good players like to have time and space with the puck. Getting on them quickly is key - not giving them time to get their head up and make plays.
"Thornton's a big guy and likes to guard the puck, but Datsyuk's not as big, and he's pretty good at guarding the puck, too"
And that 23:57 from Tuesday night we mentioned earlier? That's becoming the rule, rather than the exception, as the new pairings have provided more balance in ice time. Keith is averaging almost three fewer minutes of ice time per game in this lockout-shortened season than he did the last two years. He's never complained, and often welcomed, the workload. But for a man whose name is on a charity that helps families meet astronomical medical bills, he's not looking for Keith Relief.
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"When you think about it, it's really only two or three shifts during the course of a game, or one less shift a period," he said. "It's not that much."
Spoken like someone who just went through a life-changing moment.