Indefatigable Duncan Keith wins Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP

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Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (with trophy) was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. Keith scored 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in 23 games and averaged a playoff-best 31:05 of ice time. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

This time, there was no doubt about it —Duncan Keith was too dominant, too indefatigable, too obvious to ignore.

The irrepressible Blackhawks defenseman was a runaway winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. He became the first defenseman to win the award since the Anaheim Ducks’ Scott Niedermayer in 2007.

Keith’s goal off his own rebound that broke a scoreless tie in the Hawks’ 2-0 victory that clinched the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons was a timely punctuation mark on a brilliant postseason. He finished the playoffs with 21 points in 23 games (three goals, 18 assists). He led the playoffs in assists, plus-minus (plus-16) and of course, minutes (715 total — 92 more than runner-up Victor Hedman —and 31:05 per game)

“No one more deserving,” teammate Brad Richards said. “Right from the first game in Nashville, I saw a different level of hockey that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on my team — just how he kept doing it and never showed any signs of fatigue. He’s probably the best player I’ve ever seen live. It’s unbelievable what he did out there.”

Keith joined Jonathan Toews (2010) and Patrick Kane (2013) as Conn Smythe winners for the Hawks. But there was a healthy debate for Toews and Kane. Toews made minimal impact — three points and a minus-5 —in the Cup Final against the Flyers in 2010; Kane parlayed a late hot streak to win in 2013 — even he would have given it to Corey Crawford if he could have.

But there was no debate this time. The 31-year-old Keith was a dominant player virtually from start to finish.

“It’s about time,” Toews said. “We all know he’s going to go down as one of the great players to play the game. In our room we knew that before the playoffs. But he keeps proving it time and time again. I couldn’t be happier for a guy like that. It’s really incredible.”

Keith was a gracious winner all around Monday night. He is one of seven players to have their name on the Cup for all three Hawks championships under coach Joel Quenneville.

“First off, hats off to Tampa Bay,” Keith said. “It was by far our hardest series —I’m not just saying that. It was incredible —you saw how close the games were every time.

“There’s a few games that obviously could have gone both ways, but we found a way to win and I’m just proud to be a part of this team and this group of guys.”

Keith has won two Norris Trophies, but the 2015 postseason was clearly his shining moment.

“He’s one of those special, special athletes that won’t give up,” teammate Brent Seabrook said. “He’s got so many great qualities that set him apart from different players that make him great. He’s obviously got the skills that everybody sees. [But] nobody wants to win more than that guy. He’s going to do whatever it takes.”

That became more apparent than ever as the playoffs ensued. Keith had a goal and an assist and played 39:51 in the Hawks’ double-overtime victory at Nashville in their playoff opener. He had a goal and two assists in that series clincher.

But it was his outstanding performance in the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks that seemed to take Keith — or the appreciation of Keith — to a new level. With the Hawks relying primarily on four defenseman after losing Michal Rozsival to a season-ending broken ankle in Game 4 against the Wild in the second round, the Ducks took aim at the Hawks’ defensive corps.

“It’s going to wear on them,” Ducks center Ryan Kesler told reporters after the Hawks won Game 4 in overtime. “No human could withstand that many hits.”

Kesler was talking about any of the Hawks’ overworked defensemen when he said that. But it became attached to Keith as the Hawks defenseman’s indefatigable performance symbolized the root of the Ducks’ demise.

While the rest of his teammates survived the Ducks’ purposeful onslaught, Keith seemed to grow stronger and stronger with each shift he played and each hit he took. When the Hawks tailed 3-2 in the series, Keith spearheaded the Hawks’ comeback, with three assists in Game 6 and two more in Game 7.

Keith didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about when it came to his impressive workload.

“I think it’s just playoff hockey,” he said. “Everybody’s out there. We’re all in the same boat. Everybody’s playing hard. It’s the middle of June now. We’re in the Stanley Cup Final. That’s all that needs to be said.”

And now that it’s over, a relief after all those minutes?

“It’s a lot of feelings of happiness obviously,” Keith said. “But there’s some relief we got the job done. We can take a breath now.”

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