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Blackhawks fall to Avalanche, third place in Central

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Updated: March 13, 2014 12:04AM

DENVER — Maybe it’ll be different in April or May. Maybe when the lights are brighter and the stakes are higher and the pressure is unbearable, maybe all that skill and talent and experience the Blackhawks have will win out.


But maybe not.

“We don’t want to think of ourselves as a team that just turns on the switch come playoff time,” Jonathan Toews said after the Hawks lost 3-2 to the Colorado Avalanche to fall into third place in the Central Division.

Toews said there wasn’t “cause for concern.” Not yet, at least. But the records are unnerving. The Hawks have lost four of five to the upstart Avalanche this season, and so far have lost all three games against the first-place St. Louis Blues. There are still 16 games left, but the Hawks could have to go through the Avs and the Blues without home-ice advantage in either just to make it to the Western Conference finals.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that, aside from some sloppy puck-handling, the Hawks have actually played quite well in the last three meetings with Colorado, yet have lost all three. Pretty good hasn’t been good enough against Patrick Roy’s speedy and skilled young team.

“That’s another big two points we let slip, that’s six in a row against this team,” Toews said. “It’s not good enough. It is frustrating.”

Quenneville made two risky lineup decisions in this one, starting Antti Raanta over Corey Crawford and putting defenseman Sheldon Brookbank at forward while scratching a healthy Peter Regin. He went with Raanta because Crawford had struggled against the Avs this year — though Quenneville quickly quelled any goalie controversy by saying he had no doubts that Crawford would be his man in a potential playoff series. And he said he went with Brookbank for “energy,” and to have an extra defenseman “just in case.”

Raanta was sharp early in a wild first few minutes — twice bailing out Duncan Keith with big saves after turnovers — but gave up a bad goal to Brad Malone from a very sharp angle late in the first. Quenneville called it “deflating,” but felt his team fought back.

Matt Duchene scored 19 seconds into the second period to make it 2-0. Patrick Kane scored his 29th goal on a beautiful individual effort later in the second, but Ryan O’Reilly scored on a 5-on-3 power play midway through the third period after back-to-back costly penalties by Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger. And Semyon Varlamov held on despite giving up a Brandon Saad goal with 2:17 left, as the Avs improved to a league-best 33-1-3 when scoring first (and 31-0-2 when leading after two).

In his four starts against the Hawks this season, Varlamov has made 36, 46, 36 and 37 saves — a sign that the Hawks have controlled play to an extent, but a sign that Varlamov might have the Hawks’ number.

“It looks like it’s a landslide against you, but every game’s been different, and every game’s been close,” Quenneville said of the Avs’ 4-1-0 record against the Hawks.

In fact, six of the seven losses to the Blues and the Avs have been down-to-the-wire, or have gone to overtimes or shootouts. That’s encouraging, but it’s also alarming. The Hawks are the veteran team, the team with playoff savvy and mental toughness. But time and again, they’re coming up just short against their two biggest rivals

Keith said it was about keeping things simple, and developing not just a playoff-type mentality, but the more grounded and conservative playoff-type style of play.

Toews said it was just about finding that switch and flipping it now — before it’s too late.

“Maybe we can learn our lesson now, that the games aren’t going to get any easier,” he said. “It’s time to play hard. It’s time to play our style of hockey if we want to win games.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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