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Great Start Helps Propel Avs Past Hawks

by Ron Knabenbauer / Colorado Avalanche

Talk about a great start to a game: one shift, three shots and two goals.

It was one of those starts that always seem to be talked about by players and coaches, and the Colorado Avalanche had just that Tuesday night. Before the Chicago Blackhawks faithful had time to get settled into their United Center seats, the visiting team held a 2-0 lead.

The early goals, just 1:17 into the contest, were all the Avs needed as they held off frantic rushes by the Blackhawks for the remainder of the game. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov played possibly the best hockey of his career, making 54 saves in the 2-0 shutout victory.

"Tonight, it was a solid performance by [Varlamov] and a good start by us," said Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy. "They had to chase us. When you play catch-up hockey, you throw everything at the net, you play with urgency. That's what they did, but we just found a way to win this game."

Scoring early is starting to become a familiar theme for the Avalanche as the club had a similar strong start last time out, on Sunday against Columbus.

Jarome Iginla scored 30 seconds into that game to give the Avs a quick advantage on the scoreboard, but it was the Blue Jackets that controlled the rest of the period as they managed an 11-3 shot differential and tied the contest before the intermission.

That letdown didn't happen this time as the Avalanche kept coming at Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, firing 11 shots in the first period and continued to get quality scoring chances throughout the contest.

Playing a full game and not being satisfied with a lead are things that have been common topics among the Avs players the past few weeks.

"It's a very, very good team," said Colorado forward Maxime Talbot of the Blackhawks. "If it's a team that can come back, it's them. But I think we learned from last game."

Nathan MacKinnon opened the scoring 53 seconds into the contest after grabbing a rebound and throwing it top shelf. John Mitchell began the play by taking a pass from MacKinnon, cutting into the slot and wristing a shot that caromed off Crawford and straight to MacKinnon at the right circle.

MacKinnon then had to do some quick skate and stick work, kicking the puck from his skate to the blade of his stick before firing a shot over Crawford's left shoulder, glove side.

"Mitchy made a good shot on net, and I drove and I caught it on my feet I think," MacKinnon said. "Thankfully I got it upstairs, but I was fortunate to get one early, definitely feels pretty good."

Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy kept the line out there for the ensuing faceoff and the combo struck again 24 seconds later.

Mitchell set up the second goal as well after a chip along the neutral-zone wall created a 2-on-1 rush and soon a 2-on-0 chance when MacKinnon and Talbot turned on the jets. MacKinnon grabbed the puck at the blue line and drove to the net before passing to Talbot—MacKinnon's landlord (the 19-year-old is living with Talbot and his family this season)—at the last second. Talbot then knocked the puck between Crawford's pads to complete the quick two-goal run.

It was Talbot's third tally of the year, and he has now recorded a point in all three contests against the Hawks this season (two goals, one assist).

"He's got some speed. He is going to create some stuff," Talbot said of MacKinnon. "For me, I didn't even call for the puck, he saw me last minute. When this guy is one on one with the goalie, you want to kind of give him some space, but he sent it back last minute and it just squeezed in."

For MacKinnon, his goal might be the start of the young forward finding his offensive game again. He entered the game having gone four contests without scoring and had only found the back of the net once in the last 21 games. However, he did record 11 assists during that span.

Roy called MacKinnon's score "a good start" in him getting out of his goal slump.

"He got a goal and an assist, which is good for him and is good for our team," Roy said. "We need our guys to play with confidence, and if he plays with confidence that would be good for us."

VARL-AMAZING

It shouldn't really be a surprise that Semyon Varlamov put in another dominating performance against the Chicago Blackhawks.

He won his fifth consecutive contest against the club as he stopped a career-high 54 shots Tuesday night, the most saves in a game by an Avalanche netminder since the team moved to Denver in 1995. The mark is the second-most in franchise history behind Ron Tugnutt's 70 saves with the Quebec Nordiques on March 21, 1991 at Boston.

"It's exciting, I can tell," said Varlamov immediately after the game. "I'm so exhausted right now. I was cramping really bad at the end of the game in the last minute.

"A big game for us, for sure. Tough to play against Chicago, always, especially here in this building, one of the best crowds here. It is really fun to play in this building."

His 54 stops also set the franchise record for the most in a regular-season shutout, the third of the season for Varlamov and the 16th of his NHL career. It also set an NHL record for the most saves in a regular-season shutout on the road since shots on goal became an official NHL statistic in 1955-56.

Varlamov is just the third goalie in the expansion era with a shutout of 54 or more saves, joining Edmonton's Ben Scrivens (59, 2013-14) and Phoenix's Mike Smith (54, 2011-12).

"Obviously, Varly was the story of the game," Roy said. "He was outstanding out there. He made some really good saves. The quality of their team, they put a lot of shots on net, especially from outside the dots. They shoot from everywhere, and they drive the net. Again, a strong performance by our goaltender."

The Russian netminder won all four games he started against Chicago last season, and Tuesday's victory improved his overall record to 8-3-0 versus the Blackhawks. He now owns a 2.01 goals-against average, .945 save percentage and two shutouts in 12 career games against the Avs' Central Division rival.

FACEOFF SUCCESS

The domination for the Avalanche was not just in the crease but in the faceoff circle as well.

Colorado won 67 percent of its faceoffs on Tuesday, going 36-for-54 against Chicago.

Matt Duchene (9-for-12, 75 percent) and John Mitchell (9-for-16, 56 percent) each won nine draws, but it was Ryan O'Reilly that was the rock star at the dot. O'Reilly won 82 percent of his faceoffs, going 14-for-17.

PENALTY KILL DOING ITS JOB

In the previous two meetings of the season, Chicago's power play was the difference in the Blackhawks getting the win.

That wasn't the case on Tuesday as Colorado killed both of Chicago's power-play opportunities. The Hawks did make the most of their chances though, firing nine total shots during the extra-man situations.

The Blackhawks had scored two power-play goals in each of their Nov. 26 and Dec. 27 victories in Denver.

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