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Return of ‘another good player’ could boost Blackhawks in Game 2

Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (holding Conn Smythe Trophy) will play in Game 2 against the Blues on Friday night in St. Louis after a six-game suspension. (Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media)

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock isn’t getting himself too worked up over the return of Duncan Keith. Or is he?

“I got him two medals [in the Olympics], so we’re good friends,” Hitchcock said Thursday when asked about Keith’s return for Game 2 of the first-round series between the Blues and Blackhawks on Friday night at Scottrade Center. “I know what type of player he is, but he’s another player on their team, so you write down a number.

“You start oohing and ah-ing and start spending all this time talking about the opposition, it freezes up your team. He’s another good player that they’ve got. We’ve got good players, too, so he’s a number and name that goes up on our board and you get ready to play.”

And furthermore …

“We’re certainly not going to talk about what he does well,” Hitchcock, on a roll, continued. “We’re going to see if we can exploit some things. That’s just what you do at this time of year. But man, when somebody asks you a question like, ‘Is the end of the world kind of coming because one player comes back?’ … they could lose three players tomorrow. We could lose three players. You don’t know that stuff.”

It’s probably not a good thing for the Blues that Hitchcock is worried about his team freezing up because he might dare to acknowledge that Duncan Keith — two-time Olympian, two-time Norris Trophy winner, three-time Stanley Cup winner, defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner — is a good player and just might increase the degree-of-difficulty for the Blues in Game 2 on Friday after they needed a fortuitous deflection to win 1-0 in overtime in Game 1.

For the record, the Hawks don’t gush about the opposition, either — it’s kind of a thing in hockey, where confidence is so precious that nobody wants the other guy to feel too good about himself. But Hitchcock seemed to expend more energy and emotion downplaying the Keith return than he would have acknowledging the obvious. The Blues could play better in Game 2. The Hawks could play worse. But it’s self-evident that Keith’s return after a six-game suspension for high-sticking the Wild’s Charlie Coyle on March 29 helps the Hawks’ chances.

“You know he’s ready to get back and he’s rarin’ to go,” teammate Patrick Kane said. “So when you have someone come back in your lineup, with the swagger he has, how much he loves playing hockey, especially at this high level, it’s only going to be a positive for our team.”

“He’s such a big part of our team and he’s definitely missed when he’s not in the lineup,” teammate Brent Seabrook said. “Playing 30 minutes … I’ve done it a lot of times in the playoffs in big games. I like playing those kind of minutes and being counted on. But having Duncan back definitely can alleviate the pressure in some areas, whether it’s penalty killing, the power play or even strength.”

Whatever will be will be. In 2013, Kings coach Darryl Sutter similarly downplayed Keith’s impact when Keith was suspended for Game 4 of the Western Conference final — “I don’t think we’re too concerned with one player for them,” Sutter said. “We’re more concerned about our players.” When Keith returned for Game 5, he scored 3:42 into the game and the Hawks won 4-3 in overtime to clinch the series.

As for Keith, he seemed typically nonplussed by the matter Thursday. He should at least be refreshed after not playing any games (though practicing) the last 16 days.

“I don’t know,” he said. “More than anything, I’m just excited to get back and play and get the feeling of playing in a game again. You want to be out there helping the guys win a hockey game, so that is frustrating — especially with it being a big game like it was. So I’m excited to play and help the team win.”

The Blues established a physical tone with 41 hits in Game 1. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was probably only half-kidding when he said, “If we can get him to react and maybe get suspended another few games, I think it’ll be better for us.” But it’s unlikely that the physical nature of the game will challenge Keith. As the Ducks found out in last year’s Western Conference final, it often makes him even tougher to beat.

“I don’t change my game at all,” Keith said. “I compete hard. That’s what I try to do and that’s what I’m going to do [in Game 2]. It’s not the first big game I’ve played in. As far as dealing with somebody trying to get a reaction out of me, I take hits all the time. That’s all part of it.”

And Hitchcock’s reticence notwithstanding, the Blues know what they’re dealing with in Duncan Keith.

“He’s come up big in these moments,” Shattenkirk said. “He can be quiet for 55 minutes in a game and all of a sudden he’s putting one into the back of your net.

“He’s a calm guy back there. He does a great job of breaking them out of their zone — I think that’s something he really excels at. You notice when he’s not in the lineup and it’s something we’ll have to be ready for [in Game 2] because he’s a big part of their team.”