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Avalanche continue pursuit of Blackhawks in Central

by Brian Hedger

AVALANCHE (39-17-5) at BLACKHAWKS (36-12-14)


Last 10: Colorado 7-3-0; Chicago 4-4-2

Season series: This is the fourth of five games between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. The Avalanche have won two of the first three, including the most recent, a 3-2 overtime victory Jan. 14 at United Center. They will conclude the season series March 12 at Pepsi Center in Denver.

Big story: Colorado comes into this game having won two games in a row and three of the past four. The Avalanche (83 points) are also just three points behind the Blackhawks (86) and St. Louis Blues (86) atop the Central Division.

"I think [this is] an important game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think it's more than a normal game with Colorado. We've got them the following week, as well. Very critical four points and could sort some things out between now and the end of the year by what happens in these next two games."

The Blackhawks, who will be without Marian Hossa for up to three weeks, come into the game after snapping a two-game losing skid this past Saturday night at Soldier Field with an impressive 5-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the final game of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.

Team Scope:

Avalanche: Prior to facing the Blackhawks in the first game after the Christmas break, Colorado coach Patrick Roy was certain Chicago would win the division title.

A little more than two months later, his team is within striking distance of the Central's top two teams heading into the stretch run. The Avalanche possess talent and speed up front, strong goaltending and a solid defense corps that scored four goals Sunday in a 6-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Their sights are now set on doing what Roy thought impossible back in December.

"It's a log-jam up there for the division title and we've been talking about [how] we'd love to put a banner up in our arena this year," Colorado forward Matt Duchene said. "It's been a while and we're right there. They're going to have to slip a little bit and we're going to have to play really good hockey for it to happen, but so far we've done that. We've taken care of business in our last two [games], and now it's time to go on the road and take care of business there."

Blackhawks: Hossa's absence creates a big hole atop the first line, where he played nearly all season with Patrick Sharp and center Jonathan Toews on one of the NHL's most productive units.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said versatile forward Brandon Saad will likely get the first crack at right wing on that line, like he did replacing Hossa mid-game against the Penguins, but it remains to be seen if that's the full-time solution. Recently-acquired center Peter Regin will return to the lineup after missing the outdoor game as a healthy scratch, and will likely center the third line.

"With the way they've come on this season, they're as good as anybody in the League," Quenneville said of the Avalanche. "They've got some weapons and they've got some skill and speed and they've had success against us, so let's don't underestimate the importance of [this] game."

Who's hot: Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon extended his string of consecutive games with at least a point to 11 straight by recording two assists in the win against Tampa Bay. … Toews rose to the occasion in the Blackhawks' victory against the Penguins, as the captain scored two goals and assisted on another in his first game against Pittsburgh captain and Canadian Olympic teammate Sidney Crosby.

Injury report: Colorado forward Alex Tanguay (hip) is out for the season. … Aside from Hossa (upper body), the Blackhawks are missing veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (rotator cuff), who is likely to miss the remainder of the season.

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