The NHL went into league-wide Christmas Break, after December 23rd, and return to play, tonight. While it’s not a significant break, it can shake things up a bit. Teams struggling could use the break to reboot their season, teams with injuries get a little extra time to heal their wounds, and teams surging may end up losing some momentum. While the Chicago Blackhawks were on fire, heading into the break, the extra days off could affect some of the positive momentum, but that’s not always the case. The Hawks should be very ready to face the newcomers to the Central Division elite club, the Colorado Avalanche. The Blackhawks will surely be ready to remind Colorado, who is still the best in the Central, while the Avalanche surely want to make a statement to the Central, as well as the rest of the NHL.[table “32” not found /]
In this matchup, the Blackhawks hold the statistical edge. The Avalanche are an elite team when it comes to Goals for, and Goals against, but they don’t have the puck controlling skills, that the Blackhawks do. Colorado is able to score goals while not controlling the puck because of their speed and quick strike ability. The Avs are excellent on the forecheck and able to make teams pay for their mistakes, like no other. Their speed, and aggressive forecheck, combined with the fact that their goaltending has been excellent this season, is why the Avs are in the playoff conversation, in the highly competitive Central Division. While the Blackhawks are no slouch in the speed department, they aren’t quite at Colorado’s level. The fact that the Avalanche rely on their quick strikes to propel their offense, while not consistently having solid puck possesion, makes one wonder if their success is truly sustainable, this season.
The Hawks control the puck like no other, and this is their main ingredient to their NHL-leading offense. The Blackhawks have a superior Power Play, which could be a key, to the Hawks’ success tonight, as the Avalanche have struggled a bit, on the Penalty Kill. The same goes for the Avalanche, but their Power Play has not been great, but the Blackhawks’ Penalty Kill has struggled mightily, this season.
The Avalanche are currently sitting pretty, in 3rd place, in the Central Division, but have gone a modest 4-3-3, in their last 10 games. The break in the schedule might be just what they needed. Matt Duchene has been living up to his high expectations, this season, as he leads the Avs, in points. Ryan O’reilly, and Gabriel Landeskog, have had very good seasons, while Paul Stastny has also played solid, but below his very high expectations. Nathan MacKinnon is having a very good rookie season, as he figures to be a long-term fixture, in Colorado’s forward core.
Colorado has been thrown into the playoff race, due to finally having not just solid, but elite goaltending, this season. Semyon Varlamov has shouldered most of the load, to great success this season, with a .925 save percentage, in 27 starts.
The Blackhawks couldn’t have gone into the break riding any higher. They defeated the New Jersey Devils by perfectly executing their gameplan, of dominating the puck, and having that lead to dominance on the scoreboard. Now, it’s back to work, and hopefully the Central Division leaders can pick up, right where they left off. Patrick Kane is in the midst of another(!) 12 game point streak, and looks to make it 13 games, tonight, as he continues his best season yet. Patrick Sharp is also having a career-year, as he has developed into a bit more of a deker, as well as the shooter he has always been, this season. Jonathan Toews continues his dominating all-around game, along with his more than solid offensive production.
A big Central Division matchup, with one team looking to show the hockey world that it is still the dominant force that it has been in recent years, and the other a team new to the playoff conversation, is looking to shock the hockey world, and prove that they are for real. It should be a great game!