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Blackhawks’ blue line evokes memory of 2010

Chicago Blackhawks Vs Nashville Predators.  Chicago Blackhawks No.2 Duncan Keith. Saturday April 18 2013 I Phoby Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Chicago Blackhawks Vs Nashville Predators. Chicago Blackhawks No.2 Duncan Keith. Saturday April 18, 2013 I Photo by Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 22, 2013 7:09AM

For the last few seasons, Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith was the NHL’s iron man. His story was one of endless minutes and a seemingly always-increasing workload.

No one played more than Keith.

But now?

Keith’s ice time isn’t even among the top 10 among defensemen — or 15 or even 20. Entering the game Saturday against the Phoenix Coyotes, Keith’s average ice time was 23:58, good enough for only 24th among blue-liners.

But no worries.

It’s a sign that good things are at work for the Hawks. A previous strength has become one again during their return to dominance.

“You talk about everybody on our back end,” coach Joel Quenne-
ville said. “Our defense has been a big part of our success this year, and we think we’re deeper and better than we’ve been.”

Except maybe in 2010.

In the Hawks’ Stanley Cup-winning season, their biggest strength arguably was their blue line. They were “puck possession,” dictating the flow and pace, handling the breakouts and entries and maintaining control — and doing all of it well.

While Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are in the Hart Trophy discussion this season and there has been a lot made about what’s going on in goal, the Hawks’ defensive corps is doing again what it did in 2010.

The Hawks had the second-best goal differential in 2010 and were first in shot differential. They are the best in both categories now.

“It’s different every year,” Keith said. “In a sense, our team game is definitely better this year. That makes it easier on everybody. You ask the forwards, they’ll say it’s easier on them because the defense has better gaps and we’re getting them the puck. You talk to the defense, we’re complementing the forwards on their back-checking, and their coming back allows us to stay up and make those plays. The goaltenders would say the same thing.

“Everything is intertwined. One thing complements the other. That’s a big part of why, as a defense corps, we’re able to hold on to pucks, make plays, hold the line and have good gaps.”

Keith points to the Hawks’ top-five penalty kill as another sign of their success as a defense.

“In 2010, our penalty-killing was good,” Keith said. “All our defensemen contributed to that. And that’s a big part of our success this year, our penalty-killing. You look down at every one of our defensemen, and they all bring something to the table. I think we’re all good at puck possession. I know our forwards, when you talk to them, they like to have the puck. So I think that’s something we work on every day, trying to get it back.”

Keith doesn’t care about the decreased minutes, either. He’s always shared a prominent role with longtime blue-line partner Brent Seabrook. But having Johnny Oduya around for a full season, Niklas Hjalmarsson playing better than in years past, Nick Leddy taking major steps in his development and having quality veterans in Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank on the team are good reasons to share.

“All the pairings have been playing a lot,” Keith said. “That’s been a big key to our success. Playing the amount of minutes we’ve been playing as a result of guys being able to play and make good plays and be playing well, hopefully that continues in the playoffs, too.”

And Keith still is playing well. His play has warranted some Norris Trophy talk.

After all, he’s the leader of one of the best defensive corps in the league.

“Just the way our team is on defense, everybody can play,” Keith said. “There’s no need to play that many [minutes], as you can see. It’s been good for the team, and it’s been good for myself, too. I feel like I have lots of energy. I feel good.”

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