1. ROCKY ROAD
The Blackhawks will spend New Year's Eve in Denver, and the objective entering Thursday's tilt is to end 2015 with two more points over a division rival that has caused them fits at times over the last three seasons. The Avalanche won the first matchup of the season 3-0 on Dec. 15, stifling Chicago's offense with a combination of solid neutral-zone defense and stellar goaltending by Semyon Varlamov, who the Blackhawks have not been able to defeat in their last eight attempts. Colorado has won nine of 13 December tilts, including a big victory over San Jose on Monday, while Chicago just snapped a two-game skid with a wild 7-5 win over Arizona on Tuesday; Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith each tallied a goal and two assists to lead the way.
2. NATE THE GREAT
Entering Monday's tilt against the Sharks, Colorado forward Nathan MacKinnon hadn't found the back of the net in 14 games dating back to Thanksgiving, but he broke out of that rut in a big way, tallying a hat trick—the second of his young career—to lead the Avs to a 6-3 win. The 2013 first-overall pick now has nine points in his last nine tilts, including a pair of helpers against the Blackhawks on Dec. 15. MacKinnon's blistering speed makes him one of the league's most dangerous forwards in transition, and he also displays an impressive shot, so limiting breakaway chances will be crucial to keeping him off the sheet. However, his skill set means the 20-year-old can affect the game other ways, as he shares fourth in the league with a +11 penalty differential, and leads the team with 17 penalties drawn this season.
3. POWER STRUGGLE
The Blackhawks can help their own cause against Colorado by staying out of the penalty box—on Tuesday they were charged with eight minor penalties, and the Coyotes scored twice with the man advantage. Chicago can't afford to do that against the Avs, who boast the ninth-best power play in the league as of Wednesday. Colorado tallied four times with the man advantage on Monday in San Jose, with three of those goals credited to the second unit of MacKinnon, Carl Soderberg, Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and defenseman Francois Beauchemin. Two of their power-play goals were of the tip-in variety, so if the Blackhawks do find themselves shorthanded often, tying up sticks will be crucial to preventing those opportunities.
4. DEPTH CHARGE
Head Coach Joel Quenneville's lineup changes did result in more goals on Tuesday, so it's likely he'll stick with that formula for at least another game. The new-look third line of Phillip Danault, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Desjardins found some success together at even strength, as Desjardins netted a pair of goals and Teravainen contributed two assists and Danault picked up his second career point with a helper of his own. Depth contributions could also come into play on Thursday, as Colorado has put together a successful fourth line: Mikhail Grigorenko, Jack Skille and Cody McLeod have 12 goals between them this season, including six as a trio, which is the second-most productive combination on the team this season (stat ref). If the top lines cancel each other out, more pressure will be put on each team's bottom six to be a difference-maker.
5. BARRIE THE HATCHET
One name Blackhawks fans have grown to loathe in recent seasons is Tyson Barrie, who seems to enjoy playing against Chicago more than any other team in the league, posting 12 points (5G, 7A) in 13 career matchups, including an assist in the most recent contest between the two clubs. Barrie leads team defensemen and ranks fifth among skaters with 23 points (4G, 19A) in 34 games, and he has a goal and three assists in his last four outings. He and fellow shooting defensemen Beauchemin and Erik Johnson will not hesitate to unload a shot whenever there's a lane available, so it'll be up to Blackhawks forwards to close the gap and not allow them the courtesy of getting the puck to the net easily.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks' first glimpse of the Avs earlier this month was frustrating in all of the familiar ways, highlighting a susceptibility to quick transition plays, as well as the inability to work around Colorado's defensive-zone collapse and ultimately force Varlamov out of his comfort zone. The Blackhawks will need strong puck support in all three zones on Thursday, whether that means defensmen jumping up in the rush to create a second wave of offense or forwards picking up their defensive coverage consistently. The Avs have enough top-end talent to punish any careless mistakes made in the defensive zone, so the Blackhawks will want to play to their own strengths and establish their possession game at Colorado's end of the ice.