Blues know Blackhawks' Duncan Keith is not 'just a player'

ST. LOUIS — Blues coach Ken Hitchcock did a bit of backtracking Thursday on the “just a player on the other team” response he gave after I asked if the Blues felt like they had to win Game 1 of their series with the Chicago Blackhawks, considering the defending champs were without Duncan Keith.

Clearly, Keith isn't “just a player on the other team.”

He's last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner. A future Hall of Famer. A two-time Olympic gold medalist.

A slightly annoyed Hitchcock obviously knew all of that when the question was posed.

But he's not about to start singing the praises of Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane or anyone else on a team that St. Louis is trying so desperately to eliminate.

“You start oohing and ahhing and start spending all this time talking about the opposition, it freezes up your team,” said Hitchcock, whose Blues defeated the Hawks 1-0 in overtime Wednesday. “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 the board and you get ready to play.”

That number and that name will return to the Blackhawks for Game 2 on Friday for the first time since Keith cracked Minnesota's Charlie Coyle in the face with his stick on March 29.

He's certainly looking forward to mixing it up with the hard-hitting Blues.

“It's tough sitting out and watching games and not being a part of it,” said Keith, who was suspended for six games by the NHL.

Keith will jump into a series in which the first game saw big, bruising hits by the Blues. The defenseman, who has been suspended three times in four years for retaliatory actions on the ice, was asked how he will react if provoked.

“I compete hard. That's what I try to do and that's what I'm going to do tomorrow. I'm not going to go change,” Keith said. “It's not the first big game I've played in.

“It's a game and we want to get the win, so do what we can to find a way to get that win. But as far as dealing with somebody trying to get a reaction out of me, I take hits all the time. That's all a part of it.”

Coach Joel Quenneville said he hopes Keith has learned a valuable lesson.

“I know the leash is a bit tighter than it's been, so he's got to know he's got to be smart in that area,” Quenneville said. “He's fiery, but you have to make sure that there's a thought before you react to something like that.”

Keith's return figures to provide a huge spark for the Hawks. He's their leader on the back end and is a fiercely competitive athlete who has very few, if any, flaws in his game.

The power play in particular should receive a boost, but so should the Hawks' play at even strength. Keith's vision and ability to hit teammates in stride with long stretch passes is essential if the Hawks hope to repeat as champs.

He “likely” will be paired with Niklas Hjalmarsson for Game 2, according to Quenneville.

As for Hitchcock's relationship with Keith, he said the two are “good friends.” That's in large part due to the fact that Hitchcock was part of the coaching staff that led Keith and Team Canada to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014.

“I really enjoyed playing for him and trying to pick his brain,” Keith said. “I remember at the last Olympics, me and Sharpie (Patrick Sharp) were always talking, trying to talk hockey with him, trying to get some wisdom from him.

“I remember on the flight back after the tournament, I asked him if he wanted to talk hockey and he said, 'Not anymore. We're enemies now again.'

“I've got a lot of respect for him and the job that he does, the way he coaches.”

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