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At the Rink: Avalanche at Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com

CHICAGO -- Playing teams from their own division was something that vexed the Chicago Blackhawks last season, but this year it's been a different story.

Prior to hosting the Colorado Avalanche at United Center on Tuesday, another opponent from the Central Division, the Blackhawks hold a 10-4-0 record against their division. That's three wins short of their entire amount against the Central in 2013-14, when they went 13-13-3 and finished third.

It's an impressive turnaround effort through the season's first half, but even more so considering how stacked the division is with good teams. The Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are in the thick of the race after neither made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

"It's a tough division," right wing Patrick Kane said after the Blackhawks' morning skate. "You look at a lot of our teams, there's really no bad team in the division and on any given night an opponent can [win] its matchup. We try to pride ourselves on these games, because we know maybe that later in the year it's going to be more important."

Last season's finish earned Chicago the Central's third automatic qualifying spot for the postseason. The ultimate goal of making the playoffs was reached, but the Blackhawks had to face the St. Louis Blues in the first round without home-ice advantage. It's something they're intent on changing, especially with a 14-4-1 record on home ice through almost the halfway point in the regular season.

"You try to treat these games as four-point games, where you're stealing two from them and taking two for yourself," Kane said. "It's a great division for sure. If not the toughest, it's one of the toughest in the League and we pride ourselves on trying to be good in these matchups."

They should get another good test against the Avalanche, who are at the opposite end of the spectrum from where they finished last year. Colorado, which finished on top of the Central last season, is in last place with 38 points.

They're 6-6-3 in their previous 15 games, but got top goalie Semyon Varlamov back from a groin injury five games ago. Colorado has won two of its past three games and earned at least a point in five of the past eight, so the confidence is building.

"Even though we're last place in the division, I know there are no teams taking us lightly based on what we can do night-to-night and what we did last season," top center Matt Duchene said. "It's such a good League. Everyone can skate and everyone can play now, and this division ... it was an arms race this summer in terms of free agents and you're seeing a pretty good brand of hockey."

That's especially true of the Blackhawks, who've won the first two games against the Avalanche after going 1-3-1 against Colorado last season. Varlamov, who will start his fifth straight game Tuesday, played in all five games against Chicago a season ago.

Tuesday will be the first time Varlamov faces the Blackhawks this season. Despite the Russian goalie's injury-related struggles, they're prepared for another tough challenge to score.

"He was great last year against us," Kane said. "One thing with him is ... if you think you have an open net or he's out of position, he's really not. He always seems to be in the frame and giving himself a chance to stop the puck. You learn that with goaltenders as you go along. When they're down and out, you've got to concentrate maybe a little bit more on certain goaltenders, and he's certainly one of them."

Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews didn't participate in the skate, but will play. Coach Joel Quenneville said Toews was just "resting" for the game.

Forward Cody McLeod didn't skate for Colorado because of a minor leg injury, but is expected to play.

Here are the projected lineups:

AVALANCHE

Gabriel Landeskog - Matt Duchene - Borna Rendulic

Alex Tanguay - Ryan O'Reilly - Jarome Iginla

Nathan MacKinnon - John Mitchell - Daniel Briere

Cody McLeod - Marc-Andre Cliche - Maxime Talbot

Jan Hejda - Erik Johnson

Nate Guenin - Tyson Barrie

Brad Stuart - Nick Holden

Semyon Varlamov

Reto Berra

Scratched: Zach Redmond

Injured: Patrick Bordeleau (fractured kneecap), Jamie McGinn (back surgery), Ben Street (hand), Ryan Wilson (shoulder), Jesse Winchester (concussion)

BLACKHAWKS

Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa

Patrick Sharp - Brad Richards - Patrick Kane

Bryan Bickell -- Teuvo Teravainen - Andrew Shaw

Joakim Nordstrom - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook

Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson

David Rundblad - Michal Rozsival

Corey Crawford

Antti Raanta

Scratched: Daniel Carcillo, Tim Erixon

Injured: Kris Versteeg (upper body), Trevor van Riemsdyk (patella fracture)

Status report: Redmond took McLeod's spot in line rushes during the skate and will also skate there during pregame warmups. He'll play as a seventh defenseman if McLeod can't go. ... Carcillo will sit for the second straight game and Erixon will sit for a third straight.

Who's hot: Kane has points in four straight games and in 10 of the past 11 (seven goals and nine assists).

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