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Blackhawks Buzz: Beating Varlamov key to Tuesday's tilt

by Eric Lear / Chicago Blackhawks


1. THE AVS AND AV-NOTS

The Colorado Avalanche head into Tuesday’s tilt at the United Center occupying the last spot in the highly competitive Central Division, which currently has a gap of just three points between second and fifth place. In comparison, if Colorado was in the Pacific Division, it would be tied for fourth. The Avs, who are celebrating their 20th anniversary this season, have won two straight games, both over Central Division teams in Nashville and St. Louis. Colorado beat the Blues on Sunday despite being outshot 43-18, as Semyon Varlamov made a season-high 42 saves to secure the victory. The former first-round draft pick stopped 34 of 35 shots the prior night in Nashville to total 76 saves on 79 shots in less than 24 hours, and has now won four of his last five starts, facing 43 shots in two of those tilts.

2. THE FRIENDLY CONFINES

Chicago has two winnable games in front of them to close out their current four-game homestand, beginning Tuesday against the Avs. The Blackhawks have played great hockey on home ice all season; they’re 12-3-1 at the United Center, which ties the New York Rangers for the most home wins in the NHL, and have outscored opponents 48-25 in those contests. Since returning from the six-game Circus Trip, the Blackhawks have played five home games and won four of them. The Blackhawks have posted a 185-67-34 record at the Madhouse on Madison dating back to the 2008-09 season.

“It’s nice to be at home. We were on the road for most of November,” Duncan Keith said Sunday after the Blackhawks’ fourth consecutive home win. “I think we want to be at home here and use our building to our advantage.”

3. IN DU COURSE

Colorado center Matt Duchene has just one goal in the past four games, but the 2009 third-overall pick has racked up 14 shots on goal in that span, and overall he has found the back of the net at a consistent pace this season. Duchene’s 15 goals are five more than any other teammate and put him in a tie with Tyler Seguin (DAL) for fourth in the NHL. If he stays on this pace, the 24-year-old will set a new career high for goals in a season; his current high of 27 was achieved during the 2010-11 season, his second year as a pro. In 22 games against the Blackhawks, Duchene has registered six goals and 13 assists. And while Colorado’s possession numbers are dire across the board, Duchene also leads the pack in with a 48.1 on-ice shot attempt percentage, and his line with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog—both former Calder Trophy winners—has created the majority of scoring chances for the Avs since being assembled.

4. COR POWER

As impressive as Varlamov has played for the Avs over the last two weeks, the Blackhawks’ starting netminder has been even more airtight. Corey Crawford was named the NHL’s First Star of the Week ending Dec. 13 after posting a 3-0-0 record with a .989 save percentage and two shutouts, upping his season total to four, which is tied for first in the league with Jake Allen (STL) and Devan Dubnyk (MIN). The two-time Stanley Cup winner is coming off back-to-back shutouts, a feat he’s accomplished once already this season and now three times in his career. Crawford can extend his win streak to five with another strong performance on Tuesday against the Avs, who have won their last two matchups against him.

5. A TIME TO KILL

After stopping all 30 shots he faced on Sunday against Vancouver, Crawford was quick to credit the Blackhawks’ penalty kill for helping him preserve the blank sheet.

“Our PK has been really strong of late,” he said. “When your PK, your special teams are doing well, there’s a good chance you’ll be winning.”

Over the past five games—four of which were Blackhawks victories—the penalty kill has allowed just one goal while being shorthanded 13 times. On the season, the Blackhawks rank 10th in the league with a penalty killing percentage of 81.6, and they’ve allowed just 16 power-play goals, tied for seventh-fewest in the league. Part of the success is due to the shorthanded personnel, a combination of committed shot-blockers like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook and quick skaters who can start a rush the other way, like the duo of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. But the team has also been able to count on Crawford to make the final stop when needed, ranking ninth in the league with a .889 shorthanded save percentage.

THE FINAL WORD

The Avalanche enter Tuesday’s matchup a confident team despite where they sit in the standings and some structural deficiencies in their team game. The Blackhawks offense will be challenged to make the most of their opportunities on Tuesday night, as Varlamov seems to have Chicago’s number (10-3-0 in his career); it was just last year that he made 54 saves in a win at the United Center, setting a new NHL record for saves in a regular-season road shutout. To pick up the win, Chicago will need to get traffic to the net in order to disrupt his vision, something they did well on Sunday against Vancouver. Defensively, contending with the top line will be the number one priority for whichever line and defensive unit gets the assignment, as their high-end speed and scoring ability can be a handful.

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