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Varlamov's 36 saves lead Avalanche past Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- The Colorado Avalanche have it rolling in the right direction, and they're getting more confident with every victory.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks found that out the hard way Tuesday night, becoming the latest team snowed under by the Avalanche in an impressive 4-2 victory by Colorado at United Center.

It was the third straight win for the Avalanche (40-17-5), who moved within a point of the second-place Blackhawks (36-13-14) in the Central Division. It also made them the fastest team in franchise history to reach 40 wins, including some great teams that had first-year coach Patrick Roy in net.

"First of all, the game has changed," said Roy, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "In my time there was no shootout. But, I mean, I'm so happy to see our team putting together those 40 wins. When you have 40 wins at this stage of the season, that means you're doing something really good. We're playing as a team, we have great chemistry, and I'm very proud of our guys."

Also highlighting the night for Colorado was an assist by rookie Nathan MacKinnon on Paul Stastny's empty-net goal with 33 seconds left. That assist extended MacKinnon's point streak to 12 games, matching Wayne Gretzky for the longest by an 18-year-old in NHL history.

"Not at all," Roy responded when asked if he put MacKinnon on the ice for that shift to go for Gretzky's mark. "I didn't even think about it at the end. I just put him there because their line was playing some good hockey."

Defenseman Tyson Barrie scored his second game-winning goal against Chicago in as many games, both at United Center. He buried a one-timer from the left circle into the upper right corner with 7:10 left to play to break a 2-2 tie, and the Blackhawks couldn't recover.

The assist on Barrie's game-winner went to Erik Johnson, his third of the game, and the goal capped a power play that was caused by Johnny Oduya's interference penalty behind the Chicago net. It also continued the trend of defensemen scoring as Colorado has joined the chase for a division championship in Roy's first season as coach.

In 48 games last season, Colorado got five goals from its defensemen. Barrie's goal Tuesday night, his ninth, was the 34th by an Avalanche defenseman in 62 games this season. It was also Barrie's second straight game with a goal.

"[Ryan] O'Reilly had a nice spin-o-rama pass to [Johnson], and I was just yelling for it," Barrie said. "He put it right in my wheelhouse, and I was just able to kind of get everything on it and got lucky to beat [Chicago goalie Corey] Crawford there."

O'Reilly and Maxime Talbot scored the other two goals for Colorado, which got another strong outing in net from Semyon Varlamov (36 saves). Varlamov is 31-11-5 and helped the Avalanche improve to 3-1-0 against the Blackhawks with one game left in the season series, March 12 at Pepsi Center.

Ben Smith and Jonathan Toews scored for Chicago, and Crawford made 17 saves in taking the loss. The Blackhawks have lost three of their past four games and fell two points back of the Central-leading St. Louis Blues, who beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 on Tuesday night.

The Blackhawks (86 points) are now sandwiched between Colorado (85) and St. Louis (88) in a tight division race heading into the stretch run.

"We lost a lot of ground tonight," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "You look at the four-point swing [against the Blues], so now we're behind and Colorado's one point [back]. But a lot of things can change, and I'd love to move ahead, and we'd love to finish first in our division. For the most part, we did the right things tonight. We should've taken advantage of them."

It was the second straight game Chicago lost to Colorado despite finishing with a lopsided advantage in shots (38-21). Quenneville was fine with his team's offensive effort, but wasn't thrilled with his defense or goaltending.

"Every game's different," Quenneville said. "I thought we out-chanced them, outplayed them. ... I didn't like any of the goals that went in tonight, but it was one of those games."

Chicago controlled the action early by dominating puck possession. The Blackhawks just couldn't solve Varlamov despite a couple of prime scoring opportunities in the first period.

Varlamov also keyed a pair of successful penalty kills in the first to keep it scoreless through the first, and it didn't take long for his teammates to reward the effort.

Talbot made it 1-0 with his seventh goal; he scored 2:49 into the second by redirecting a long wrist shot from Johnson through Crawford's pads. That gave the Avalanche more life and more time with the puck on their sticks.

Colorado started to show why it came into the game with a 30-1-3 record in games in which it scored the first goal and was 30-0-2 when leading after 40 minutes.

Smith, however, managed to tie it 1-1 late in the second with his eighth goal. He rewarded Chicago's fourth line for a good shift by peeling the puck off the boards after a short pass from Brandon Bollig and wheeling to the slot for a wrist shot that he ripped past Varlamov.

That's how it stayed to start the third, but again Colorado scored quickly to retake the lead on O'Reilly's 24th goal, which he put between Crawford's pads for a 2-1 lead 1:23 into the period.

Chicago retied it 2-2 at 7:17 on a power-play goal by Toews, his 22nd, but Barrie and Varlamov made sure it was just a speed bump on the way to another Avalanche victory.

"It was an important game. Like I said before, our objective at the start of the season was to surprise the world of hockey. … I guess we're making it even more interesting," Roy said. "We're one point behind these guys with one game in hand. The players deserve a lot of credit for the effort. Every day we're jumping on the ice with intensity and working hard. I'm just proud of our group. Simple as that."

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