Duncan Keith returns to ice for Blackhawks

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Of course, Duncan Keith’s leg was bothering him. He was playing about 30 minutes a night — hard minutes, too, against the physical Anaheim Ducks and the swift-skating Tampa Bay Lightning. He played 40 minutes four times, once nearly topping 50. Even a guy like Keith, regularly referred to as a physical “freak” by his teammates and coaches, is going to feel that.

So, no, Keith didn’t tell anyone that his calf was starting to bug him midway through the Stanley Cup Final in June, after a Lightning player fell on his leg away from the play during either Game 3 or Game 4. Keith figured it was routine aches and pains, the price you pay for glory, all that stuff you’d expect from a proud, professional athlete.

“It’s just one of those things where you kind of deal with a lot of different little injuries and pains and you don’t think too much of it, really,” Keith said on Sunday. “When all of a sudden you get back on the ice [and] it’s not better, you’re kind of wondering what the heck happened.”

Maybe if Keith had mentioned something to his coaches, or the athletic trainers, or the team doctor, the team would have learned about the meniscal tear in his right knee earlier, and could have repaired it over the summer instead of during the season. Instead, Keith kept quiet. And after dealing with the pain during his summer workouts, and throughout camp, and into the first couple of weeks of the season, Keith finally relented. He had surgery on Oct. 20, when it became clear that the nagging pain in his calf, and the limited mobility it caused, wasn’t going away.

“We did not know about it,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. When asked if he wished Keith had said something earlier, Quenneville said, “Well, something like that, maybe you get to the summer and [expect it will] get better over time. That’s probably what happened.”

The good news is, Keith seems poised to return sooner than expected. After skating with Marian Hossa while the rest of the team was in New Jersey, Keith joined his teammates for Sunday’s morning skate, and looked and felt good. He’s eligible to come off long-term injured reserve Saturday at St. Louis, and while that seems optimistic, it hasn’t been ruled out, either. Again, Keith sometimes seems more machine than man.

Sunday’s game against Edmonton will be the ninth game Keith has missed, and the Hawks are 4-3-1 in his absence. Trevor van Riemsdyk has picked up much of the slack, and rookies Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg have filled in capably. But Keith — a two-time Norris Trophy-winning defender and the engine that drives the Hawks’ puck-possession game —is all but irreplaceable.

“Obviously, we’re spoiled watching him play, on some nights, as many as 30 minutes a game,” Quenneville said. “So he has a big influence on our game, the game itself. Offensively, one area where we really miss Duncs is him with the puck coming out of our end, and in the offensive zone, as well. He defends as good as anybody in the game. There’s definitely a void.”

Keith said the knee and calf already feel better, but he’s sticking to the athletic trainers’ timetable and won’t come back before he’s 100 percent ready. For most players, especially ones that bear the kind of workload that Keith does, a month or so off during the season could be a blessing in disguise.

But Keith’s not most guys.

“I think that’s one positive way to look at it,” he shrugged. “But at the same time, I didn’t feel there was any mental fatigue. I think we’ve been through this situation before where we’ve had long seasons and a quick turnaround. It’s just something now where I can try to use this time to the best of my ability, and to rejuvenate, so when I come back, I can be ready to help the team.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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