Central division race tightens; Avs pull to within a point of the Hawks after 4-2 win at the UC

By Brad Vandenberk

Now that the Olympics have claimed its victor and the Stadium Series business is behind us, its time to shift focus to the NHL playoff chase.  On the eve of the trade deadline, the Chicago Blackhawks host the Colorado Avalanche.  The Avs entered the contest trailing the Hawks by three points in the standings.  To make Tuesday night’s matchup even more meaningful, Colorado also has a game in hand on the defending champs in a tight race atop the Central division between the Avs, Hawks and Blues.

As we sit on March 4, 2014 the Hawks have 20 games remaining in their schedule with the pesky Avs nipping at their heels. While the St Louis Blues began the evening tied with the Hawks at 86 points (St. Louis won 4-2 over Tampa on Tuesday night to climb to 88 points].  This will make for a great finish heading into the playoffs.  The bad news coming out of the Madhouse on Madison is that Marian Hossa will be on the shelf for approximately 2-3 weeks with an upper body injury suffered in Saturday night’s affair at Soldier Field.  This next stretch without him will be a very tough test as no one can play as good a 200 foot game as Hossa.  Brandon Saad started out on the top line Tuesday night as a first-laid plan to replace Hossa alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp for the time being.  

Corey Crawford got the start tonight wearing the Stadium Series pads he wore on Saturday.  Seems there is a thief in the Chicago area with both Crawford’s mask and pads disappearing.  Semyon Varlamov got the start for the visiting Avs.  Sheldon Brookbank and Marian Hossa were the scratches tonight with newly acquired David Rundblad also out with his arrival pending.  Crawford entered the ice donning his Stadium Series pads so Antti Raanta took it upon himself to sport his as well.

Bryan Bickell showing his speed early beating an icing, Peter Regin walks out with a shot attempt on Varlamov but he makes the save.  Even though Hossa was missing tonight, Saad made his presence felt, pitching in with some offensive zone time with Sharp and Toews.  Patrick Kane tries to ignite Michal Handzus. Kane gets the puck toward the net and Handzus is stopped on the doorstep.  The Hawks get the first power play of the game when Jan Hejda gets called for interference behind the play.  The Hawks don’t get 1 shot on net during the man advantage.  Toews, Sharp and Saad continue to dominate in the offensive zone. Erik Johnson gets caught up with the Hawks speed and gets called for holding at the 1:20 mark of the first period.  The Hawks outshot the Avs 11-3 and will remain on the power play to open the second.

The Hawks cannot get one past Varlamov and continue to struggle on the power play, although they still remain as the league’s 3rd best team in that department.  Marcus Kruger tries his best baseball swing at a puck at the side of the net but fails to connect.  The puck seemed to be bouncing all over the place.  The Avs break the tie and score first.  Johnson sends a point shot on Crawford and Maxime Talbot tips it through the five-hole making it 1-0.  The Hawks come right back when Saad breaks in on Varlamov and gets his own rebound sending it wide of the net.  The “4th” line picks up where they left of pre-Olympics, keeping the puck deep and pressuring with a pesky forecheck.  Toews looks like he is in top form when he flies into the zone and comes across crease firing the puck opposite side but again Varlamov makes the pad save.  Avalanche got their first attempt on the power play when Duncan Keith grabs Olympic teammate Matt Duchene and heads to the box for holding.  Crawford kills off the penalty.  Regin again is noticeable getting a nice chance with Bickell and Shaw.  The Avs get another power play when the Hawks get caught for Too Many Men on the ice.  With 44 seconds left in the power play, Jamie McGinn is called for interference creating a 4 on 4.  The Hawks end up with 1:14 of power play time and the Avs kill off another one.  With 3:08 left in the period, newly extended Brandon Bollig works a puck on the boards to Smith and he walks out and shots short side on Varlamov tying the game at 1.  The Hawks continue to outshoot the Avs 24-14.

Before the beer lines cleared at the UC, Ryan O’Reilly gets lucky when a puck just passes Keith who attempts to break up the pass.  O’Reilly breaks in and goes five-hole on Crawford giving the Avs a 2-1.  18 year old Nathan MacKinnon takes Rozsival’s feet out from under him and gets called for tripping.   Finally the Hawks capitalize on the power play.  They slowly work it around and Sharp finds Toews at the side of the net, he waits and roofs it over Varlamov 2-2.  Johnny Oduya is the next victim to head to the penalty box for interference.   Ben Smith gets a shorthanded chance but it’s the Avs who take the lead.  Tyson Barrie lets a one timer go from the point and the Avs take the lead on a power play goal 3-2.  The Hawks continue to test Varlamov but the Russian net minder stands strong.  Even Rozsival makes his way to the front of the net and stirs it up, accidentally punching a lineman in the process.  Gabriel Landeskog breaks in and beats Crawford but not the post.  Crawford heads to the bench with 1:33 left in the game and the Hawks fail to tie it up and surrender an empty net goal when Paul Stastny scores from his knees.   The game finishes with a Hawks loss 4-2 and now and even tighter race at the top of the Central division.

Lines:

Sharp Toews Saad                           Keith Seabrook

Versteeg Handzus Kane                  Oduya Hjalmarsson

Bickell Regin Shaw                           Leddy Rozsival

Bollig Kruger Smith

Quick Hits:

-Hawks outshot the Avs 38-21

-Hawks go 1/4 on the power play and the Avs go 1/3.

-Keith led all Hawks with 25:41 of TOI Seabrook was the next Hawk with 21:29.

-Toews went 10/19 in the face-off circle, Handzus 5/15, Regin 1/2, and Kruger 3/4.

-The central division now has the St Louis Blues on top with 88 points, Hawks have 86 and now the Avs 84.

-Hawks will host an old foe on Thursday when Columbus visits the UC.

Brad Vandenberk

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