Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith

Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports

Hawks 3 Up, 3 Down: The Importance Of Duncan Keith

Keith may have lost a step, but his mental game is as sharp as ever.

Jay Zawaski
November 05, 2018 - 1:18 pm
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(670 The Score) The Blackhawks are in the midst of a five-game losing streak. What a perfect time for the debut of my weekly "3 up, 3 down" piece.

THREE UP

1. Keith is still hugely important – Chicago was forced to play the majority of a loss at Calgary on Saturday without defenseman Duncan Keith, who took a major boarding penalty early in the first period. While it’s impossible to quantify how differently the game would've been had be been available, it was easy to see the Blackhawks under siege in the third period, clinging to and then eventually losing the lead they held. A lot has been made about the decline of several core Blackhawks, including Keith. If this team was forced to play without him for a stretch of games, sniffing the playoffs would be out the window. While Keith may have lost a step or two athletically, his mental game is still strong. He’s almost always in the right place at the right time and still creates a matchup problem for most forwards in the game. Saturday’s game was a reminder just how important Keith is to the team’s overall success.

2. Saad looks like Saad again – Brandon Saad scored a vintage Saad goal in Calgary on Saturday, using his strength, speed and size to split the defense and push the puck past Flames goalie David Rittich. When Saad is playing in the middle of the ice, he’s an effective player. Hiding on the perimeter like Patrick Kane makes him ineffective. After finding himself in coach Joel Quenneville’s doghouse early in the season, Saad has responded. The rebirth began in Chicago's blowout loss to Tampa on Oct. 21. In the seven games since then, Saad has four goals and, just as importantly, is showing the willingness to play the power forward style that he displayed in his first stint with the Blackhawks. 

3. DeBrincat has arrivedAs I mentioned on the latest Madhouse Podcast Postgame Show, we’ve reached the point in which Alex DeBrincat’s good play can be assumed and expected. Typically with a 20-year-old player in his second season, there are lapses in consistency. DeBrincat is already one of the Blackhawks' most dependable forwards. He’s being used in all situations, including the penalty kill, and even when he’s not showing up on the score sheet, he's making an impact with chances created and quality play in all three zones. DeBrincat is the Blackhawks' star of the future, but the future may be closer than anyone dreamed. 

THREE DOWN

1. Quennville’s major gaffe – If Matt Nagy, Joe Maddon or even Fred Hoiberg had made a mistake this egregious, it would've been one of the top stories of the day in Chicago. Because it was a Saturday night in Calgary, the story flew under the radar. After Keith’s ejection in the first period, the Blackhawks failed to put a player in the penalty box. No big deal, right? Wrong. Once a penalty expires, the team can only get to even strength with the player leaving the penalty box. A player on the bench can't jump on the ice to get to even strength. Because the Hawks had no player in the box, they were forced to play an extra 1:47 shorthanded. It took Jonathan Toews realizing the situation to get a whistle, as he wisely flipped the puck out of play to draw a whistle. This is an inexcusable mistake. The broadcasters on Blackhawks radio and television couldn’t recall ever seeing that happen before. What should have been a 5:00 penalty kill turned in to a 6:47 penalty kill due to coaching negligence.

2. Schmaltz scratched – Nick Schmaltz was a healthy scratch after a poor performance in Vancouver and a wildly inconsistent start to the season. In my preseason preview, I pegged Schmaltz as one of the biggest keys to the Blackhawks' success, and he’s been a disappointment. I often wonder about his hockey IQ. He’s an incredibly skilled player with all the tools needed to be a scoring star at this level, but I find myself often confused by his decision-making. In the waning moments of the game in Vancouver, the Blackhawks were down two goals with the goalie pulled. Schmaltz controlled the puck, circling the zone, controlling the puck, with no interest in advancing the puck anywhere near the net. He basically just ran time off the clock, helping the Canucks earn the win. His hesitance to shoot has been an issue since he stepped on NHL ice for the first time, and what could've been written off as deferring to a veteran back, the time has come for him to start putting the puck on net. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of understanding, awareness, confidence or some combination of the three, but the Hawks need Schmaltz to be a factor every game. To this point, he hasn’t been. 

3. Kunitz has two points – One of the Blackhawks' "big" three free-agent signings has a whopping two points this season. Two assists. Chris Kunitz, who's as respected a locker room guy as you’ll find in the league, isn’t doing ... much. I know the off-ice factor matters. Veteran presence can make a difference, especially for a young team, but with so many forward options (Dylan Sikura, Victor Ejdsell and others) playing in Rockford, it’s going to be hard to justify playing Kunitz much longer. 

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Bernstein & McKnight Show on 670 middays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m and a columnist for 670 The Score. He also is the co-host of the Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcast, which is available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify or your preferred podcast app. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.​​​