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Hawks regain first in West with 5-2 win over Colorado

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER -- If this was a playoff preview, the Chicago Blackhawks should be feeling pretty confident about their chances of advancing.

The Hawks got off to a fast start against the Colorado Avalanche, a potential first-round opponent, and skated to their sixth consecutive win, 5-2 on Friday night before 16,327 at the Pepsi Center.

Chicago would clinch first place in the Western Conference and the No. 1 playoff seed with a home win Sunday against Detroit in the regular-season finale even if the San Jose Sharks win at home Saturday against Phoenix.

The Hawks and Sharks each have 111 points with one game to play, but Chicago owns the first tiebreaker with more wins (52-50).

The Avalanche, who play host to Los Angeles on Sunday, will finish eighth and play the top-seeded team.

"If we do end up facing them in the playoffs, it'll be a tough, hard-fought series," Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles said of the Hawks. "It's going to take everything we have."

Except for a power play that was struggling before Friday's game, the Hawks have been clicking on all cylinders following a poor March in which they won only five of 14 games.

"We worked really hard to get out of that hole," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, who had a power-play goal and an assist Friday. "We were struggling a little bit and we knew it was still a reality to finish first in our conference. Now we have one game left to accomplish that. It's been in our control the whole way, and that's the way we want it.    

"So we'll keep playing the same way and hopefully go get it on Sunday. We'll be ready as ever to start against whoever our opponent may be next week."

Colin Fraser connected twice for the second time in the past three games, and the Hawks also got goals from Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg, who scored into an empty net with 1:21 to play.

"You want to be on a roll and playing your best hockey heading into the playoffs," Fraser said. "You can't just turn the light switch on and think it's going to happen easily. We've done that, and we've got one more to go."

The Hawks won three of four meetings against the Avalanche this year; the three previous games were decided in shootouts.

"They've got a good team over there," Fraser said of Colorado. "They came harder in the second and third (periods). It was pretty evenly matched in the last two periods."

Antti Niemi, making his eighth consecutive start in the Hawks net, stopped 30 shots. He's allowed only 11 goals during the six-game winning streak, and five of them came Wednesday against St. Louis.

Colorado played without several regulars, including goalie Craig Anderson, forwards Milan Hejduk and T.J. Galiardi, and defenseman Adam Foote. Left wing Peter Mueller remained sidelined with a concussion and rookie Matt Duchene suffered a torso injury in the first period and didn't return.

Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said he wouldn't have a definitive prognosis regarding Duchene until Saturday.

"We just wanted to hold him out for the rest of the game just for a precautionary measure," he said. "I don't want to speculate. We'll know more in the morning."

Fraser beat Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj for his second goal of the night from point-blank range with 6:33 remaining in the game after taking a pass from Tomas Kopecky (two assists) for a 4-2 lead.

Fraser's goal came 38 seconds after Darcy Tucker jammed in the rebound of Brandon Yip's wraparound attempt to cut the Avalanche deficit to 3-2.

"Unfortunately we didn't play as well as we could," Sacco said. "Sunday's game is significant. We want to win the hockey game and we want to make sure that we're developing good habits. We'll try to get most of our guys back in the lineup for that game so come playoff time we have a good game under our belt moving forward."

The Hawks outshot the Avalanche 17-7 in the first period and grabbed a 2-0 lead on goals by Fraser and Toews.

Fraser scored from the lower right circle at 6:20 and Toews on a wraparound at 10:55 to end Chicago's 0-for-18 drought on power plays.

"Against a team like that, you have to be ready to match their intensity," Sacco said. "We knew before the game that they're playing for first place in the conference. There's no question that we need to elevate our game and play better. We need to get set for the playoffs, and the only way to do that is by playing well."

Sharp made it 3-0 at 7:21 of the second period when he knocked the puck past Budaj from near the left post.

Avalanche rookie Ryan Stoa, playing in his 11th NHL game, had a game-high seven shots and scored his first goal at 17:36 with a long shot from the left-wing boards that handcuffed Niemi during a four-on-four skating situation.

Budaj, who made 40 saves Wednesday in the Avalanche's 5-4 overtime loss in Edmonton, made back-to-back starts for the first time since early December, when he played four games in a row while Anderson was nursing a neck injury.

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