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Blackhawks look to strike back against Avalanche

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- Among all the record breakdowns, the only one that's close to marginal for the Chicago Blackhawks is against Central Division teams.

Chicago is 8-6-1 against teams in its division with a back-to-back set this weekend against the two teams closest to the Blackhawks in the Central, the third-place Colorado Avalanche and second-place St. Louis Blues.

The Blackhawks (26-7-6) will host the Avalanche (23-10-3) on Friday at United Center, then visit the Blues on Saturday at Scottrade Center.

"It's nice being at the top of the League in the standings, but you know these division games are [against] teams you face a lot," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. "It'd be nice to get a little better record than that and improve. I guess we have some games ahead of us that we can do that in the next two."

Chicago, which also hosts the Los Angeles Kings on Monday, hasn't played the Avalanche since a 5-1 loss at Pepsi Center on Nov. 19. The Blackhawks haven't faced the Blues since losing 3-2 on Oct. 17 in a shootout at home. They also lost 3-2 in regulation against the Blues on the road in the third game of the season.

This weekend is an opportunity to strike back.

"We feel like we've had a couple games the last couple years, including last season, that we didn't do very well [against them]," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "So we've got to try and return the favor a little bit in our own building. It's not about trying to pile up the goals. It's just about playing well and being really tough to play against."

Colorado did not hold a morning skate. The Avalanche used that time to fly to Chicago, opting to stay off the ice until pregame warm-ups. Rather than playing up the added importance of beating the Central Division's leading team, Colorado coach Patrick Roy took a markedly different approach when meeting with reporters prior to puck drop.

"They're four-point [games] but they're not for us, at the same time," Roy said. "We know that Chicago is going to be on top in our [division]. We don't think we're going to battle with Chicago in the standings. I like to be very positive, but at the same time I see where we are and this is a very good team [we're playing]. This is a team that's going to finish, in my opinion, in the top two in our conference."

Roy didn't exactly concede victory in Friday night's game, though.

"It's always a good challenge to see how good you can do against a team like them," Roy said. "We've been matching well in the past against them. You just want to come here and give yourself a chance to win and if you surprise the Stanley Cup champion, then you're very happy."

Colorado will start Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal and will put defenseman Ryan Wilson back into the lineup for the first time since Dec. 14, when he officially came off the injured reserve list. During his stint on IR, Wilson missed 16 games with a back injury, making his total 22 games missing from the active lineup since getting hurt Nov. 6 against the Nashville Predators.

The Blackhawks will start rookie Antti Raanta (8-1-2, 2.20 goals-against average) in goal for the 10th straight game as he fills in for injured starter Corey Crawford (lower body). Raanta also is in contention to start Saturday against the Blues.

Crawford skated on his own Friday, before the team session, and is nearing a return to full practices. He might make the trip to St. Louis but won't be an option to play.

"[He showed] real good progress," coach Joel Quenneville said. "He felt good [Friday] and had a much more intense workout than he's had the last times on the ice. Over the next [few] days we'll get him more with the guys as we go along here. We like the progress. He feels much better."

The same cannot be said of 40-year old veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, who was signed as a free agent in the summer to back up Crawford. He's missed 19 games with a lower-body injury and his return isn't any closer.

"Nothing to report," Quenneville said. "It's tough to say right now. We haven't heard much of the progress, where you get an indication [after] you get him on the ice. So that's where it's at."

Here are the projected lineups:


Ryan O'Reilly - Matt Duchene - Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog - Paul Stastny - P.A. Parenteau

Jamie McGinn - John Mitchell - Maxime Talbot

Patrick Bordeleau - Marc-Andre Cliche - Cody McLeod

Jan Hejda - Erik Johnson

Ryan Wilson - Andre Benoit

Tyson Barrie - Nate Guenin

Jean-Sebastien Giguere

Semyon Varlamov

Scratched: Nick Holden, Brad Malone, Cory Sarich

Injured: Alex Tanguay (knee)


Patrick Sharp - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa

Kris Versteeg - Michal Handzus - Patrick Kane

Bryan Bickell - Andrew Shaw - Brandon Saad

Brandon Bollig - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook

Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson

Nick Leddy - Michal Rozsival

Antti Raanta

Jason LaBarbera

Scratched: Michael Kostka, Sheldon Brookbank

Injured: Nikolai Khabibulin (lower body), Corey Crawford (lower body)

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