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Blackhawks rely on ‘ageless’ defenseman Duncan Keith in playoff push

Duncan Keith scored the game-winner Sunday against the Avalanche. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

GLENDALE, Ariz. — As the Blackhawks skated through warm-ups before a crucial game against the Avalanche on Sunday, longtime defenseman Duncan Keith coasted near center ice and exchanged glances with a buddy on the opposition, as if to say, “Can you believe we’re doing this again?”

The Hawks and Avs were 24 hours removed from finishing up their game in Denver and were back on the ice for a rematch at the United Center. Keith logged 26:24 in the mile-high altitude the previous afternoon and didn’t have much in the tank.

“Everybody was tired,” he said Tuesday before a late game against the Coyotes. “You could tell that Colorado was tired, too. Sometimes it’s just being mentally tough and fighting through it. That’s all part of it. That’s probably the biggest thing.”

It was with that mindset that Keith mustered the effort in the 30,361st minute of his career to take the puck off 23-year-old Avalanche All-Star Nathan MacKinnon and outrace him the length of the rink for the game-winning goal in overtime.

It would have been a magnificent play by anyone, but it’s even more impressive when one of the most high-mileage players in team history shows he can still be a game-changer at 35. It was Keith’s sixth goal of the season, to go along with 31 assists.

Nothing he has done lately stands out as much as the game-winner against the Avalanche, which kept the Hawks alive in the playoff race, but Keith has been essential in helping a shaky defense hold steady late in the season. He had four blocks as the Hawks held the Avalanche to 20 shots on goal.

“He’s been excellent in the second half, probably our best defenseman,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “He’s ageless. He looks like he could play forever with his skating and his ability to defend lines. He’s a guy in D-zone that when he gets a chance to close on a guy, he’s gonna do it. He breaks it up, and then we go the other way in transition.”

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It has been a challenging season for Keith, with the Hawks ranking near the bottom of the NHL in shots on goal against, goals given up and high-danger scoring chances allowed.

Part of the issue was a rocky transition from Joel Quenneville’s style to Colliton’s, and it took the Hawks awhile to reach a point where they felt cohesive, even if they continued to struggle.

“When you’re playing a team game, you have to make reads off of each other, and when we’re not all on the same page, sometimes you look a little foolish out there,” Keith said. “It’s always better when everybody’s on the same page. It makes everybody’s game easier.

“There was a point where we kind of turned the page and started to feel like we had more of an identity about how we needed to play, what we needed to do out there as a team to have success and stay in games.”

Colliton is counting on Keith as part of a top-line defensive pairing with work-in-progress Erik Gustafsson. Gustafsson is one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL, putting more responsibility on Keith to not only be a lockdown defender, but also to try to keep Gustafsson on track.

The Hawks are hoping Keith really can play forever, as Colliton mused, given that he’s under contract through 2022-23. He’ll be 39 then, but that probably won’t matter to him.

“I don’t really feel old,” he said. “I try to take care of myself and work hard, train hard in the offseason. I’ve always been diligent in that regard.

“I enjoy it. I enjoy being in the NHL and competing and working hard, and always prided myself on being in good shape. I don’t really feel any different than I did back when our team was winning Cups.”