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Blackhawks, Avalanche figure to get familiar

WEDNESDAY

BLACKHAWKS
AT AVALANCHE
The facts: 8:30 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Updated: March 11, 2014 9:09PM



DENVER — At the beginning of the season, as the Colorado Avalanche reeled off 12 wins in its first 13 games, there was a lot of talk that the team resembled the Blackhawks in the nascent stages of their current golden age — full of young, talented, high draft picks.

Now that the Avalanche has proved that start was no fluke, winning five of six to move one point behind the Hawks for second place in the Central Division with 17 games left, there’s some talk that the Avs look like the 2008-09 Hawks — who, in Patrick Kane’s words, were too young to know any better as they stormed to the Western Conference finals.

“Why not us?” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said last week, echoing the team’s official new rallying cry.

The Avs have taken three of four games against the Hawks this season, and it’s looking increasingly likely that the teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs, making the game Wednesday at the Pepsi Center — the last regular-season clash — a very big one in terms of home-ice advantage.

“It’s the last four-point game with them,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “And at the end, it could have a lot to do with sorting out who’s going to finish ahead of who.”

Neither team is at full strength. The Hawks are without Marian Hossa and will be starting backup goalie Antti Raanta. The Avalanche is without Paul Stastny, P.A. Parenteau and Alex Tanguay. But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the game or the intensity of the budding rivalry.

“Beyond the meaning in the standings currently, every time we play a team like St. Louis or Colorado, there’s always that feeling that we might see them in the playoffs at some point, whether it’s first round or not,” Jonathan Toews said. “You have to think about that and try to win the game.”

The Hawks are 0-3 against the Blues this season and 1-2-1 against the Avs. So Colorado already has clinched the season series. The way the Hawks see it, it’s not about sending any messages for the playoffs, but simply positioning themselves for those playoffs.

“We want to win in that building, but I think it’s more we’re chasing home ice and we’re chasing points than beating them and trying to put something in their heads,” said Corey Crawford, who will be sitting for the first time since Jan. 28.

Aside from the Avalanche’s 5-1 win Nov. 19 at the Pepsi Center, the season series has been statistically controlled by the Hawks. They won 7-2 on Dec. 27 at the United Center behind Patrick Sharp’s hat trick. Then the Avs won 3-2 in overtime on Jan. 14, despite being outshot 48-26. And Semyon Varlamov had to make 36 saves to hold off the Hawks last Tuesday in a 4-2 win that included an empty-netter in the final minute.

But even with the lopsided shot totals, Toews said those last two efforts still weren’t good enough.

“Maybe we limited them to not a lot of shots, but we gave them some pretty good scoring chances,” he said. “Those guys have a lot of offensive ability, and it’s [about] trying to be tougher on them.”

The teams are built in similar fashion, but they’re at different stages of development. The Hawks are now the wise veterans, blessed with experience and perspective. The Avs are the young pups, driven by hunger and a fiery first-year coach. If it does wind up being a first-round series, it surely will be a good one — and a tough one.

“There’s still a month or so left, so anything can happen,” Brandon Saad said. “But we know that we’re going to face one of these [Central] teams in the playoffs, and if it’s Colorado, we’ve got to be prepared. So I think this will be a good test for us.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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