June 15, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Minutes Man: Who Snags The Conn Smythe Trophy If The Blackhawks Win The Cup?

Three Hall of Famers. Three Stanley Cups. Three Conn Smythe Trophy winners?

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith’s inductions into the Hockey Hall of Fame are inevitable, and if the Chicago Blackhawks knock off the Tampa Bay Lightning at the United Center tonight, they’ll all be immortalized with at least three Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy on their resumés.

Toews snagged the trophy awarded to the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP as a 22-year-old back in 2010 and Kane earned his prize when the Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four years two springs ago.

Barring a FIFA takeover of the voting process, Keith will have his name engraved on the trophy, alongside his All-Star teammates, if the Blackhawks finish the job on home ice in Game 6 tonight.

How could there possibly be a more worthy candidate than the 31-year-old defenseman?

An argument could be made for Toews because, well, an argument can always be made in favor of hockey’s best two-way forward. He’s the unquestioned leader in the room, he leads the Blackhawks in scoring with 21 points (tied with Kane) and he netted four goals in the last three games of the Western Conference finals, carrying his teammates on his back after the Anaheim Ducks had them on the ropes, staring elimination square in the eyes.

Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman are making strong cases, too, but they’ll be afterthoughts unless the Lightning manage to reel off back-to-back wins to steal the Cup from the Blackhawks grasp in seven games. Neither player is having the kind of otherworldly playoff performance, like Ron Hextall’s run with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1987, required to win the trophy as a member of the losing team.

If the Conn Smythe Trophy is truly an MVP award it will be handed to Keith because no player has been more valuable, in the strict definition of the word, to his squad this spring.

While he does his work from the offensively-disadvantaged position that is the blue line, Keith has posted the numbers, traditional and advanced, to justify his candidacy. Keith is currently ranked fifth in scoring, trailing the leader, Johnson, by just three points. His 20 points are the most from a defensemen this spring, leading Hedman by a whopping six points.

In addition, Keith leads all players in plus/minus (plus-15), Corsi (plus-98) and time on ice (685:18).

While scoring is always a necessity when it comes to earning hardware in the NHL, Keith’s value is a product of the minutes — quality minutes — he’s logged on the Blackhawks depleted blue line.

Barring injury tonight, Keith will become just the fourth player in NHL history (joining Drew Doughty, Chris Pronger and Niklas Lidstrom) to log more than 700 minutes of ice time in a single playoff run, particularly impressive considering the Blackhawks swept the Minnesota Wild in the second round of the playoffs. Keith is averaging 31 minutes and 36 seconds of ice time per game, including 46 minutes and 19 seconds in a triple overtime win over the Nashville Predators in Game 4 of the first round, 49 minutes and 51 seconds in a triple overtime win over the Ducks in Game 2 of the conference finals and another 40 minutes and 39 seconds in a double overtime win later in the series.

The Blackhawks would be on the golf course right now if Keith wasn’t locking down the blue line for almost half of every single game.

After Michal Rozsival suffered a season-ending leg injury against the Wild on May 7, Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville decided to give his top four defensemen roughly 85 percent of the minutes on the back end, untrusting of Kyle Cumiskey, David Rundblad and Kimmo Timonen with everything on the line.

Despite multiple overtime games, the Ducks bruising physicality and the Lightning’s exceptional speed, the Blackhawks’ four-man blue line is holding strong, an assignment that would have been impossible to execute without a stud like Keith to anchor the effort.

And Keith isn’t just logging big minutes in key games, he’s squaring off against super scorers like Corey Perry, Tyler Johnson and Steven Stamkos when he’s on the ice, helping his squad limit the tenacious trio to a combined six points in 12 games.

Keith would be just the 10th defensemen in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe trophy, the first since Scott Niedermayer captured the award with the Ducks in 2007. His performance this spring will be etched in history if the Blackhawks prevail tonight; the trophy, another accolade carved onto his plaque when he eventually joins the likes Al MacInnis, Larry Robinson and Bobby Orr in the Hall of Fame.

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