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Blackhawks begin title defense against Avs

by David Kalan
BLACKHAWKS (0-0-0) at AVALANCHE (0-0-0)


Season series --
This will be the season opener for Chicago and Colorado. The Hawks took three of four from the Avs last year, but only the final meeting, a 5-2 win for Chicago at the Pepsi Center on April 9, did not end in a shootout.

Big story -- Four months after ending the longest Stanley Cup drought in the League, Chicago will start its title defense in Colorado, where the young Avs will be looking for a signature victory to open up their 2010-11 campaign.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks --
As the defending champs open up their title defense, the Hawks look significantly different from the team that skated with Stanley in June. Because of salary cap constraints, GM Stan Bowman had to jettison a large chunk of the roster during a summer that saw playoff star Dustin Byfuglien and gritty winger Andrew Ladd shipped to Atlanta and ties cut with goaltender Antti Niemi, the only double-digit game-winner in the past postseason. All in all 11 players that were on the roster for Game 6 in Philadelphia are no longer wearing the Indian Head.

But despite the makeover in the City of Broad Shoulders, the Hawks are by no means back at square one. Stanley Cup hero Patrick Kane, Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews and Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith will continue to be a part of the team's core for years. While the depth that carried Chicago to its first Cup in five decades is depleted, the Blackhawks still feature an offense and defense to be reckoned with, and the hole left in net by Niemi's departure is being filled by the experienced and able Marty Turco.

Avalanche --
Colorado may not be coming from the same lofty perch, but if Chicago's quick rise could prove any inspiration, the Avalanche may be thinking big for the coming season and beyond. A year after finishing in the draft lottery, Colorado got off to a strong start in the 2009-10 campaign before eventually crawling into the playoffs as the West's final seed. Despite a rough April, the Avs managed to take two games off the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks before bowing out of the first round.

The improvement from cellar dweller to playoff team doesn't appear to be smoke and mirrors either. Colorado has a solid group of young forwards, including Chris Stewart, who led the team with 28 goals last year, and Paul Stastny, who tallied an impressive 59 assists in 2009-10. Throw in the expected strides for second-year center Matt Duchene and the strong goaltending of Craig Anderson, who notched an impressive 38 wins in his first season in the Rockies, and Colorado certainly appears headed in the right direction.

Who's hot -- Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky both look to be rounding into form. The Slovakians each tallied three points over Chicago's final two preseason games. … Anderson seems to be picking up where he left off, giving up an average of two goals per game over his last three preseason starts for Colorado.

Injury report -- The Chicago blue line took a blow last week when defenseman Brian Campbell suffered a sprained knee that is expected to keep him out for at least a month. Winger Jack Skille, however, is considered probable for the opener. … Colorado is still without center Peter Mueller, who is out indefinitely after suffering his second career concussion in a preseason game on Sept. 22.

Stat pack --
Turco should have an easy transition to Chicago. The Blackhawks suffered relatively few losses from their defensive corps of last season, when the Hawks gave up only 25.1 shots per game, by far the fewest in the League.

Puck drop -- The pressure won't be nearly as great on Colorado this season, but head coach Joe Sacco and the front office will expect to continue the progress of a season ago. If they need any inspiration for where they could be headed, they needn't look any further than their home ice, where the Avs' 1996 Stanley Cup championship team will be honored before Thursday's opening faceoff.

The Hawks, however, are surrounded by uncertainty and high expectations at the same time, as they learn the harsh lessons of the salary cap era. It will be eight months before we find if the changes and additions made by Bowman will be enough to march the Cup down Michigan Avenue again, but the Hawks will start the journey Thursday in Denver.

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