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Blackhawks look to strike back against Avalanche

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Among all the record breakdowns, the only one that's close to marginal for the Chicago Blackhawks is against Central Division teams.

Chicago is 8-6-1 against teams in its division with a back-to-back set this weekend against the two closest teams to the Blackhawks in the Central, the third-place Colorado Avalanche and second-place St. Louis Blues.

The Blackhawks (26-7-6) will host the Avalanche (23-10-3) on Friday at United Center and then make the trip to play the Blues on Saturday at Scottrade Center.

"It's nice being at the top of the League in the standings, but you know these division games are [against] teams you face a lot," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. "It'd be nice to get a little better record than that and improve. I guess we have some games ahead of us that we can do that in the next two."

Chicago, which also hosts the Los Angeles Kings on Monday, hasn't played the Avalanche since a 5-1 loss Nov. 19 at Pepsi Center. The Blackhawks haven't faced the Blues since losing 3-2 on Oct. 17 in a shootout at home. They also lost 3-2 in regulation against the Blues on the road in the third game of the season.

This weekend is an opportunity to strike back, starting with the Avalanche.

"We feel like we've had a couple games the last couple years, including last season, that we didn't do very well [against them]," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "So we've got to try and return the favor a little bit in our own building. It's not about trying to pile up the goals. It's just about playing well and being really tough to play against."

Colorado did not hold a morning skate. The Avalanche used that time to fly to Chicago, opting to stay off the ice until pre-game warm-ups.

The Blackhawks will start rookie Antti Raanta (8-1-2, 2.20 goals-against average) in goal for the 10th straight game while he subs for injured starter Corey Crawford (lower body). Raanta also is in contention to start Saturday against the Blues.

Crawford skated on his own Friday, before the team session, and is nearing a return to full practices. He might make the trip to St. Louis but won't be an option to play.

"[He showed] real good progress," Quenneville said. "He felt good [Friday] and had a much more intense workout than he's had the last times on the ice. Over the next [few] days we'll get him more with the guys as we go along here. We like the progress. He feels much better."

The same cannot be said of 40-year old veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, who was signed as a free agent in the summer to back up Crawford. He's missed 19 games with a lower-body injury and his return isn't any closer.

"Nothing to report," Quenneville said. "It's tough to say right now. We haven't heard much of the progress, where you get an indication [after] you get him on the ice. So that's where it's at."

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