The Central Division has become a three-horse race down the stretch, as the Blackhawks vie for a prime playoff spot with old rivals and current leaders St. Louis, as well as Wednesday’s opponent, Colorado, who has narrowed the gap between second and third to just one point. The two teams have traded some lopsided results this season, including a 5-1 win for the Avs on Nov. 19 and a 7-2 trouncing by the Blackhawks on Dec. 27. Overall, Chicago is 1-2-1 vs. Colorado in the regular-season series, which concludes Wednesday, and they’ll want to end the slate on a positive note, in case the Avs reappear as a first-round foe in the playoffs. (With realignment, the first round of the playoffs will consist of divisional matchups for the third through sixth seeds.)
Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie has been a thorn in the side of the Blackhawks all season, most recently as the author of a late game-winner for Colorado in a 4-2 win on March 4 at the United Center. The 22-year-old blueliner has 28 points (9G, 19A) in 48 games this season, including a team-leading six points (3G, 3A) in four contests against Chicago. Center Paul Stastny also has three goals against the Blackhawks this season, but he will likely miss Wednesday’s game with a back injury.
Chicago’s most prolific scorers against Colorado this season are captain Jonathan Toews (3G 2A), Patrick Sharp (3G, 2A) and Duncan Keith (5A). Sharp’s three goals all came in a 7-2 win on Dec. 27—his third career hat trick. Toews is on a hot streak, collecting six goals and an assist in five games since the Olympic break, while Sharp has compiled a four-game point streak (1G, 4A). Colorado has also gotten plenty of offensive contributions from a couple of young stars recently: Matt Duchene, Canada’s youngest gold medalist in Sochi, has an eight-game point streak (4G, 8A), while last year’s first-overall draft pick, Nathan MacKinnon, recently broke Wayne Gretzky’s rookie record with a career-long 13-game point streak (5G, 13A).
Despite a subpar start to the season, Chicago’s penalty kill has recovered nicely over the last couple of months. Since embarking on the long road trip in late January, the Blackhawks have killed 39 of 43 penalties (90.7 percent), including their last nine shorthanded stints, and now rank 19th in the league (81.1 percent). In fact, the Avs are the last team to convert on a power play against the Blackhawks, so staying out of the box should be a priority.
Antti Raanta will make the start in net against Colorado, his first appearance since Jan. 28 at Calgary, when he was pulled midway through the game after allowing four goals on 15 shots. The Rauma, Finland, native has posted a 12-2-3 record in his first NHL campaign, with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. Raanta backstopped Chicago to a 7-2 win over the Avs on Dec. 27, making 16 saves on 18 shots; he also turned away 14 of 16 shots in relief of Corey Crawford in a 5-1 loss on Nov. 19. Raanta’s last win came on Jan. 12, a 5-3 decision over Edmonton.
The Blackhawks’ main objective is to put some distance between themselves and their nearest competitors in the standings, but Colorado has proved to be a “radioactive” opponent for Chicago this season, taking three of the four matchups so far. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov has put up world-beating numbers against Chicago this season (1.47 GAA and .963 SV%), giving his team a fighting chance even while facing a barrage of shots. The Avs lead the league with a 88.9 winning percentage when scoring first, so getting the first breakthrough will be crucial to the Blackhawks’ chances on Wednesday.