After winning their third consecutive game on Tuesday amidst a 6-1-1 run, the Blackhawks now find themselves at the top of the Central Division, tied with Minnesota on points. Their opponent on Thursday, Colorado, has put together a decent 4-4-0 start to the season under new head coach Jared Bednar, who took the reins after the sudden departure of Patrick Roy in the offseason, and sit in fourth place in the division. The Avalanche arrive in town after losing 5-1 at home to Nashville on Tuesday. The Blackhawks and Avs clashed four times last year, with Chicago winning three times.
Monday's 5-1 win over Calgary wasn't the prettiest team effort, although several of the goals were worthy of highlight reels. Chicago committed five minor penalties, which a week ago may have led to a more frustrating result, but managed to kill all four Flames power plays. The Blackhawks have now gone two games without allowing a PPG after not being able to do so for their first eight outings of the season.
"There's some positive signs in there," Head Coach Joel Quenneville said after Tuesday's game. "Our penalty killing is getting better, we had a couple lines that are going better. A little bit more balance in our rotation of lines. I still think we need to keep getting better."
As the Blackhawks' penalty kill continues recovering from its early-season swoon and the team works on solidifying their 5-on-5 play, the power play has done its part. Chicago has scored with the man advantage five times in their last three games, connecting at crucial points in the action. On Tuesday against Calgary, despite beginning the game 0-for-3 on the PP, the Blackhawks clicked on their fourth and final chance when Patrick Kane's shot-pass found the stick of Artem Anisimov in front of the net for the eventual game-winner, stretching Anisimov's career-long point streak to eight games.
Chicago has now climbed to eighth in the league with a 23.8% PP, and they've gotten production from both units. Marian Hossa leads the club with five points on the PP, including all three goals he's scored this season. Jonathan Toews ranks second with four PP points, and eight players overall have points when the team has been up a man.
Colorado has been powered offensively this season by their young trio of Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It's Duchene, the 2009 third-overall pick, who's surged to the top of the team standings with five goals and three assists in eight games. The 25-year-old started slow and was held without a point in his first three tilts, but has recovered nicely; he has three points (2G, 1A) in his last two games, including a helper on Colorado's lone goal on Tuesday. Duchene began the season on the second line, but has flourished after moving back to the top line to center Landeskog and Jarome Iginla. The trio has posted a 55.9 shot attempt percentage together (via corsica.hockey), and their speed and scoring ability should produce plenty of offensive opportunities for Colorado on Thursday.
Under Bednar, the Avs are hoping to be a better defensive team in their own zone this season, but while early results have been mixed, their blueliners are still contributing at the other end of the ice. Defensemen Tyson Barrie and Patrick Wiercioch-currently defensive partners-share third on the team with five points each through eight games. Barrie, who signed a four-year contract in the offseason, is well-known for his offensive ability, having compiled 158 points (41G, 117A) in 272 career games; against the Blackhawks he has 12 point in 15 matchups.
Wiercioch has been a pleasant surprise for Colorado after signing as a free agent this past summer. Over parts of five seasons with Ottawa, the 26-year-old who played college hockey for Denver University recorded just 62 points in 211 games, but has gotten off to a productive start with his new team. They're not the only ones contributing-veteran Erik Johnson leads the team with 22 shots on goal this season despite not connecting yet-but Bednar has opted to deploy Barrie and Wiercioch in mostly offensive scenarios, and they've rewarded him so far.
The Blackhawks once again relied on netminder Corey Crawford to make some timely saves early in the game to hold the Flames scoreless after a 13-shot first period. At the end of the night, he had stopped 33 of 34 shots against Calgary to notch his third straight win, a performance that included several big saves while shorthanded. Crawford has turned aside 95 of 98 during his win streak and 96 of 98 at even strength, improving his EV save percentage on the season to an astronomical .979 as he gets back to his form from last season.
"He keeps progressing in his development," Quenneville said in praise of his goaltender. "He knows the league, he knows the players, he knows situations, and I just think that he's improving every day here. The last three or four games for us, he's been a big part of us finding a way to get two points."
CHI: Andrew Desjardins (lower body), Trevor van Riemsdyk (upper body)
Panik -- Toews -- Kane
Panarin -- Anisimov -- Hossa
Motte -- Kruger -- Hartman
Rasmussen -- Schmaltz -- Tootoo
Keith -- Campbell
Kempny -- Seabrook
Forsling -- Hjalmarsson