Mar 4, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw (65) and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Andre Benoit (61) go for the puck during the first period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
The Colorado Avalanche, the most surprising contending team, in the NHL, didn’t fall back to Earth, after a hot start to the season, as many expected them to. In fact, they are one victory away from taking over 2nd place, in the Central Division, from the defending Stanley Cup Champion, Chicago Blackhawks, who were upset, at home, by the Avalanche, just last week.
The stakes are high, in this game.
Let’s take a look at how these teams matchup.
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When matched up statistically, it’s amazing that both teams are so close, in the standings. It’s easy to see why so many expected Colorado to fall out of contention, but you have to hand it to the Avs, for continuing to find ways to win, and keep up with the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, in the highly-competitive Central Division.
The Blackhawks have an overall advantage in every major category, that I listed, but not always, by a large margin. The Avalanche are practically right on the Blackhawks’ heels, in every offensive, defensive, and special teams category, but where the Hawks are far and away superior is in puck possession.
The Avs are in the bottom half of the NHL, in faceoff winning percentage, and are only ahead of 5 teams, in corsi for percentage, so when they actually do have the puck, they are lethal with it. Colorado will kill opposing teams with their speed, by making teams pay for their mistakes, while the Hawks kill opposing teams by hogging the puck and creating large quantities of scoring chances. This is a very interesting matchup.
The last time Colorado faced the Hawks, they were out-shot and out-chanced, the whole game, but were able to make the Hawks pay, on their limited scoring chances, to take the win, and pull within striking distance, of 2nd place, in the Central. The Avs are lead, offensively, by Matt Duchene, while captain Gabriel Landeskog has had a fine offensive season, of his own. Nathan MacKinnon, is one of the league’s top rookie, as well as one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy, this season. Paul Stastny and Ryan O’reilly have also contributed big points, for the surprise Avalanche, who boast the NHL’s 6th most potent offense.
Erik Johnson has been a big contributor, from the blueline, as has Tyson Barrie, who the Hawks will be quite familiar with, as he is the one who scored the game winning goal, when these teams met, just last week.
In net, will likely be Semyon Varlamov, who is arguably the MVP, of the Avalanche, as he has made up for the Avs’ lack of puck possession by shutting down opposing offenses. This season, Varlamov has put up an outstanding Save Percentage of .925, in 51 games played, this season.
The Blackhawks have righted the ship, since their defeat, at home, to the Avalanche, by winning 2 games, in a row. They are currently sitting in 2nd place, in the Central, 5 points behind the 1st place Blues. Jonathan Toews has been on fire, since winning gold, with Team Canada, in Sochi, as he leads the team with offense, and as a natural leader, down the final stretch, of the regular season. Patrick Kane scored one of his prettiest goals, of the season, in the previous game, against the Buffalo Sabres, and the Hawks could use every bit, of his highlight reel skills, to solve Varlamov. Patrick Sharp knows how to solve Varlamov, as he collected his 3rd career hat trick, on December 27th, against Colorado.
Brandon Saad has filled in remarkably, for the injured Marian Hossa, on the top-line, as well as the Penalty Kill. Possibly the most important player, on the ice, for the Hawks, in this game, would be Duncan Keith. Keith not only is the one who ignites the Hawks’ elite possession game, but, when on the ice, he is also the last line of defense, when the Avs steal the puck, and use their speed to put points, on the board.
Head Coach, Joel Quenneville surprised people when he decided he was going with Antti Raanta, in net, over regular starter, Corey Crawford. Quenneville said that Raanta would start, soon, but few would have predicted it would be in such a high-stakes game, like tonight’s. However, Crawford didn’t have his best outing, in last week’s loss, to Colorado, as he allowed a few soft goals, so Coach Q’s thinking is understandable.
While both teams are all but guaranteed a spot, in the Western Conference playoffs, they are both competing against each other, and St. Louis, for 1st place, in the Central Division, and ultimately the most ideal playoff seeding. There is a lot at stake tonight, and the Hawks have their work cut out for them, after being upset at home, they will have to find a way to win, in Denver, to stay in 2nd place. It should be a great game!