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Blackhawks face Avs in potential playoff preview

by David Kalan
BLACKHAWKS (51-22-7) at AVALANCHE (43-29-8)

Last 10:
Chicago 6-3-1; Colorado 3-5-2

Season Series:
The Hawks lead the season series, 2-1, having taken the most recent meeting, 3-2, on Nov. 11 at the United Center, but it has not been easy for either team. All three games between Chicago and Colorado this season have gone to a shootout.

Big Story:
With the top spot in the West very much in play and very much in doubt for the Hawks, Chicago attempts to lay its claim to the No. 1 seed by visiting Colorado in a potential playoff preview.

Team Scope:

In the 83rd season of Blackhawks hockey, Chicago has already established franchise records of 51 wins and 109 points, but with the playoffs ahead, the Hawks still have their sights set on one more objective -- the top seed in the West. Chicago hasn't had first billing in the postseason in 17 years, and a win Friday in Colorado would keep the Hawks tied for the slot. They have been jostling with San Jose to be best in the West for most of this year, but with both an edge in overall wins and the season series with the Sharks in its back pocket, Chicago has staked the inside track.

The road may have been slightly bumpy this week, however. While the Hawks have won five in a row to put them two points behind San Jose with a game in hand, they nearly let a five-goal lead slip away against St. Louis on Wednesday night. The win might have left a few fingernails much shorter on the Chicago bench, and while Antti Niemi appears to have assured himself of the job in net once the postseason begins, the near collapse in his seventh straight start may mean he will get the night off Friday. If that happens, Cristobal Huet may have one more chance to state his case for more time between the pipes once the regular season is over.

Speaking of biting fingernails, more than a few people were likely doing that in the Mile High City a week ago, as the Avs suffered a four-game losing streak that put their postseason hopes in limbo. Colorado has rebounded, though, going 2-0-1 in its last three to seal the franchise's 12th playoff berth in its 14 seasons in Denver. Of course, that rebound hasn't come without its own hiccups. The Avalanche lost their last outing Wednesday in Edmonton despite taking a 3-0 lead in the first period.

If there is any solace that loss can provide for Colorado, it may be that starting goaltender Craig Anderson was not in net for the debacle. Anderson has been superb in his first full campaign, winning 38 games and leading a team that finished last year in the draft lottery back to the postseason. He will almost certainly be back in net Friday, and he will need a strong performance against the potent Hawks if the Avs are to improve their position. A loss will guarantee Colorado the eighth seed in the West.

Who's Hot:
Marian Hossa is considered probable after leaving Wednesday's win over the Blues and Chicago could use his production. The winger has six points in his last six games. Colorado likely feels the same way about Paul Stastny, who has five points in his last four.

Injury Report:
For Chicago, Hossa is considered probable with an undisclosed injury, while Tomas Kopecky (upper-body injury) and Troy Brouwer (personal) are both listed as questionable. … Colorado is still without Peter Mueller, who is out indefinitely following a concussion, while Milan Hejduk (personal) is listed as questionable. Paul Stastny (undisclosed) and T.J. Galiardi (undisclosed) are expected to play, however.

Stat Pack:
Colorado may have an edge over the Hawks at the Pepsi Center. Chicago has lost 17 of its 26 visits to the Rockies, and the Blackhawks haven't beaten the Avalanche in regulation in five straight games.

Puck Drop:
While the Avalanche are assured of not having home ice in the first round of the playoffs, Chicago's shot at the advantage in a potential conference final against San Jose looms large, as does the potential confidence gained from the first win in this series not attained in the shootout. Chicago's reward for nabbing the top spot in the West would likely be a first-round date with these very same Avs.

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