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Blackhawks Buzz: January 14, 2014 vs. Colorado Avalanche

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks

Patrick Sharp netted a hat trick on his 32nd birthday as the Blackhawks rolled to a 7-2 win against the Avalanche at home on Dec. 27.

Even though his production has tailed off a little since the Blackhawks last faced the Avalanche on Dec. 27, Matt Duchene is still the foundation of everything Colorado does on offense. Opponents have held the 22-year-old center to just five assists in his last nine games, but he still leads Colorado in points, goals and assists, while also winning 54 percent of his faceoffs.

Colorado raced off to a dominant start at the beginning of the year and led the Western Conference for much of the season’s first two months. Their success was largely thanks to goaltender Semyon Varlamov (see below) and their speedy, playmaking forwards. Aside from Duchene, the Avalanche feature a top six most teams would gladly take, which includes power winger and captain Gabriel Landeskog, two-way specialist Ryan O’Reilly, 2013’s top draft pick Nathan MacKinnon and two-time U.S. Olympian Paul Stastny. The Avs use their top-tier speed to break out of the zone and create a number of odd-man rushes, and it will be on the Blackhawks' defensemen and backchecking forwards to keep up.

Though Corey Crawford hasn’t won a decision since returning from injury on Jan. 2, going 0-1-3, it’s hard to pin much of the blame on the Blackhawks’ top netminder; in that span, Crawford has only allowed 2.50 goals per game, stopping 136 of 146 shots (.932 save percentage). The Blackhawks have scored seven total goals in his four starts, never scoring more than two goals in any game.

If he gets the nod tonight, he will likely oppose Varlamov, who has not suffered a regulation loss since Dec. 10, a span of 12 appearances. The 2006 first-round draft pick has allowed a few more goals as of late, but some of that rise may also be attributed to the number of shots Colorado is allowing per game (31.6 per night, 23rd in the league). Nevertheless, Varlamov has allowed just one goal on 50 shots against the Blackhawks this year; he won a 5-1 decision in Colorado on Nov. 19, and stopped all 13 shots he faced in relief of J.S. Giguere in the Blackhawks’ 7-2 home victory in December.

After 48 games, Duncan Keith has continued his impressive season, both offensively and defensively, and his outstanding two-way game is drawing attention from the media and fans alike. Keith’s 44 points ranks fourth on the Blackhawks in scoring behind Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews, and he leads NHL defensemen in assists (41) and points. Keith has recorded 11 assists in his last nine games, and his 33 takeaways are second among Western Conference blueliners.

The Blackhawks and Avalanche have scored a total of 15 goals in two matchups this year, and both teams have enough top talent to light the lamp multiple times again on Tuesday. It will be up to the defenders and goaltenders to make a crucial stop here and there, and that could be the difference in what may be another fast-paced and high-scoring matchup.

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