AVALANCHE (22-15-6) at BLACKHAWKS (23-18-3)
TV: ALT (HD), CSN-CH (HD)
Colorado 4-5-2; Chicago 6-4-0
Colorado has already wrapped up a win in its season series with Chicago, having won all three prior meetings this season, the most recent a 4-3 win at the United Center on Dec. 15.
As both these teams enter the second half of the season, the West's tight playoff race is squeezing each of them. With such a relatively small point total separating the fourth spot in the conference from the 14th, every game against a conference foe has become a crucial battle for ground in the race to reach April. Wednesday will be no different for Chicago and Colorado, two teams that have moved from in the top eight to out and back in again on an almost daily basis.
Colorado sits in second place of the Northwest, but it isn't often that first place seems so far away. A hefty distance sits between the Avs and the division-leading Canucks, but don't feel too sorry for the Avalanche. Gunning for its second straight postseason appearance, Colorado is firmly entrenched in the middle of the West playoff pack. Given the volatility of such a tight chase, however, no one in the conference is safe, and Colorado has done itself no favors recently, dropping seven of its last nine.
The Avs' last game Monday could be an indication that they're breaking out of the funk, however. Recently named to his first All-Star appearance, Matt Duchene
led the way with two scores as Colorado flew out of the gate with four first-period goals in a win over Cup-contending Detroit. Duchene, one of 21 players who will make their All-Star debut later this month in Raleigh, N.C., is despite his youth starting to look like just the right man to bring Colorado back to its winning ways, having registered 9 points in his last eight games. Doing so will require help on the back end, however, and that could prove more difficult than anticipated. Likely starter Craig Anderson has lost his last four times between the pipes.
If most of the West's playoff fate currently rests on the knife edge, Chicago's is more tenuous than most. The defending champs are stuck in third place in the Central, 10 points behind the Red Wings. If the season's first half is any indication, the Hawks are unlikely to make up that kind of ground in their division, but after winning seven of their last 11, they just may be on the brink of more stable postseason footing.
Chicago currently sits in a mess of teams jockeying for position around the conference's final playoff spot, but after enduring extensive injuries to Patrick Kane
, Jonathan Toews
and Marian Hossa
in the last few months, the Blackhawks, coming off a 5-0 drubbing Sunday of what had been a surging Islanders team, could be ready to break out. Doing so will require more production from Toews, who has all of 1 goal in his last seven games, but Patrick Sharp
, who is on pace to make a serious run at 50 goals, has continued to carry the offense with 4 goals and 2 assists in his last four games. One of those goals came against the Isles, on a night that saw Chicago honor its 1961 championship team before puck drop. The ceremony may have inspired Sharp along with a few others, including goaltender Corey Crawford
, who delivered a 29-save shutout. The dominating performance may be evidence that after watching a champion, the current Hawks remembered they can still play like one.
Who's Hot: David Jones
and Milan Hejduk
have both provided Colorado with some steady production, with each tallying 4 points in their last four games. … In Chicago, the healthy roster may be beginning to gel, as Kane and Marian Hossa
have combined for 10 points in the last four games.
The Blackhawks, in what has been a rarity this season, should have a completely healthy roster Wednesday. … Colorado may be without Cody McLeod
(groin) and breakout rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (foot) who are both listed as questionable.
It isn't uncommon for some skilled players to make a significant jump in their second season, much like Steven Stamkos did in Tampa Bay last year. It seems clear Duchene is having a similar revelation. With 43 points in 43 games, No. 3 pick is 2009 is almost certain to shatter his rookie season output of 51 points in 81 outings.
Colorado has already ensured that it will get the best of Chicago in the regular season, but with both teams scrambling to book their tickets to the playoffs, the last two points settled between them will prove eminently important. Perhaps even more importantly, the Hawks would do well to avoid a season sweep -- and the mental edge that comes with it -- should they see the Avs again this spring.