Chicago Blackhawks’ Week Ahead Heads West

Jan 26, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Arizona Coyotes center Brad Richardson (12) celebrates his goal with teammates during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 26, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Arizona Coyotes center Brad Richardson (12) celebrates his goal with teammates during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports /
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Jan 26, 2016; San Jose, CA, USA; Colorado Avalanche goalie Calvin Pickard (31) deflects a shot by San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun (61) in the 2nd period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports. /

Tuesday: Chicago Blackhawks at Colorado Avalanche, 8 p.m. (CSN Chicago)

This game is a little more intriguing with the Avs having vaulted into the playoff race before the All-Star break. Colorado has been one of the Blackhawks’ trouble teams in recent years, but after losing 3-0 in this season’s first matchup between the teams, the Blackhawks have taken the last two games by a combined score of 10-6.

Will we see another offensive explosion here? There’s a fair chance. The Avs don’t have any runaway points leaders, but they’re relatively balanced. Their only All-Star, Matt Duchene, boasts a team-best 42 points on a team-leading 23 goals to go along with 19 assists. Nathan MacKinnon is a point behind, while Carl Soderberg (36), Gabriel “Elbows” Landeskog (35) and Tyson Barrie (33) are all in the 30s. And while the Blackhawks were struggling offensively in their last four games before the break, the rest should be just what they need to get on track. Plus, they tallied six goals last time out against the Avs.

Colorado should score a lot, considering all five of the guys mentioned above, to go along with veterans Jarome Iginla and Erik Johnson, have more than 100 shots apiece through 52 games. Their speed combined with their willingness to shoot and crash the crease can be troublesome for many teams. It’s getting back on the other end to protect oft-embattled Semyon Varlamov that’s been the issue.

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Varlamov has been lights-out through most of his career against the Blackhawks. The 27-year-old’s 11 wins against Chicago are his most against any team (tied with Dallas), while his .940 save percentage and 2.12 goals-allowed average are among his best marks against any individual NHL team. That’s on top of three shutouts, tied for the most he has against any single team.

With Colorado getting last change, you know Patrick Roy — as silly as he can be behind the bench — will swarm the likes of Trevor van Riemsdyk, Michal Rozsival/Rob Scuderi, Erik Gustafsson and Brent Seabrook as often as possible. He has some solid options to do that, which means Corey Crawford will probably be busy. What else is new? The Blackhawks need to play a strong team game against the Avs to come out on top. If no one person tries to be the hero while making a pass, setting up a scoring play or trying to defend a Colorado attack, the Blackhawks should be able to dull Colorado’s speedy attack and get chances their own way, at which point the goal is forcing Varlamov to move side to side frequently on his oft-injured lower body.

Jan 26, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Arizona Coyotes goalie Louis Domingue (35) looks to clear the puck during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 26, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Arizona Coyotes goalie Louis Domingue (35) looks to clear the puck during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports /

Thursday: Chicago Blackhawks at Arizona Coyotes, 8 p.m. (CSN Chicago)

No Mike Smith for this one, so most of the vitriol you could have felt is immediately erased. They haven’t had Raffi Torres for a few seasons now, either. Guess we’ll have to pretend Antoine Vermette is some sort of traitor (or “trader,” if you’re a St. Louis Cardinals fan).

The Coyotes have been a surprise of the league this season, though playing in an awful division certainly helps your stock. The Coyotes boasted 53 points going into the break, which would have put them sixth in the Central Division. But in the Pacific Division, that’s good for the third playoff spot. They’re only two points ahead of both Anaheim and Vancouver, though, so this game means a lot to Arizona. And the Yotes will hope it looks better than the 7-5 shellacking the Blackhawks put on them in the desert in late December, a game which was not nearly as close as the score might indicate.

Arizona, like Colorado, has balance on offense. But that balance is relatively low scoring, as Mikkel Boedker and Oliver Ekman-Larsson pace this outfit with 34 points apiece. Super-rookies Max Domi (32 points) and Anthony Duclair (25) have been fun to watch, Martin Hanzal is always good for a crummy goal against Chicago, and Arizona fans will spend a majority of the game talking about how amazing captain Shane Doan is. For the love of all things hockey, Blackhwaks, do not let this guy have another hat trick.

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In goal, Smith has been out for some time and will remain out for longer after having “core muscle” surgery in December. He probably hurt his abdominal muscles patting himself on the back/banging his stick on the ice too frequently. But that leaves Louis Domingue as the starter. The 23-year-old has really stepped to the plate in his first full season in Arizona, tallying a .924 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average to generate nine wins and two shutouts. This can be a bit of a scare for the Blackhawks, as they tend to struggle against goaltenders they haven’t seen much of — although, across 56 career AHL games, you’d think some of the younger Blackhawks may know a thing or two.

The Coyotes are pretty top heavy on offense and defense, so any way you can silence the likes of Boedker, Ekman-Larsson, Domi, Duclair, Doan and Tobias Rieder will generally get you off on the right foot against this team. If the Blackhawks are able to display better puck possession than we saw through the last bits of the first half, then all they need to do is test Domingue as often as possible. Arizona may be a playoff team right now, but the Blackhawks will see tougher competition in the bottom part of their own division.

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Jan 25, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars defenseman Johnny Oduya (47) defends against Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund (11) during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeat the Flames 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Saturday: Chicago Blackhawks at Dallas Stars, 7 p.m. (WGN, NHL Network)

My one fear with the Coyotes game Thursday is the Blackhawks get caught looking ahead to this one. They really shouldn’t, but they could. Why might they? The Stars used the Blackhawks as a measuring stick in the only other meeting between these teams, taking a 4-0 decision in Dallas on Dec. 22. Chicago would no doubt like to return the favor.

Things haven’t been so great for the Stars since that “big win” against the Blackhawks. Dallas was at 26-7-2 after that victory, 10 points clear of third-place Chicago and leading the entire league with 54 points. Since then, the Stars have won just five games in regulation while the Blackhawks started their 12-game win streak shortly afterward. As a result, we have the Blackhawks sitting three points ahead of the Stars, though the latter do have three games in hand.

There’s no secret to what has made the Stars tick this season: a potent offense. The Blackhawks helped created the Stars’ first line by offloading Patrick Sharp to Dallas before the season started. The result: The trio of Sharp, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin has 151 points, easily the most by any line in the league. If not for Patrick Kane, Benn (58 points) and Seguin (53) would be fighting over the league scoring title. But it goes deeper than that, as the Stars boast three more players with 39-40 points, two more with 21 apiece and another eight with 12-19 points. So they’re getting consistent contributions up and down the lineup.

The blue line has also improved, led by future Norris Trophy finalist John Klingberg. Guys like Alex Goligoski, Johnny Oduya, Jordie Benn and (my favorite NHL name) Jyrki Jokipakka have also fared well at times. But it’s still a work in progress, as their 133 goals allowed is middle of the road for the league.

Of course, a big part of that is what’s still holding this team back: the goaltending. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi just aren’t getting the job done for the Stars, and they’ll pretty much blow up any of Dallas’ playoff aspirations unless Niemi pulls a 2010 display once the postseason begins. Chances are he won’t, since the defense in front of him won’t be as effective, and since he has just a .912 save percentage and 2.42 goals-allowed average. But that’s markedly better than Lehtonen at .908 and 2.82. Pick your poison, Stars.

The Blackhawks could not get the puck on Niemi nearly enough last time out to even test him, recording just 20 shots to Dallas’ 32. Goal numero uno should absolutely be to bum rush either Niemi or Lehtonen as often as possible. Goal numero dos, then, is to challenge every little play the Stars try to make when setting up an attack. With so many capable weapons, there’s no way you can hope to send Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson out against every scoring threat. If Joel Quenneville decides to up the pressure, it could force Lindy Ruff‘s team into some bad turnovers. The Stars only know how to play one tempo, and that’s up. So shove it right back at them and see how they respond.