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A Hazy Shade of Winter: Blackhawks at Avalanche

Here’s hoping the Blackhawks can at least leave Ball Arena with their dignity.

Chicago Blackhawks v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks continue their three-game road trip in Denver on Monday night to face off against the current No. 1 seed in the league by points-percentage: the Colorado Avalanche. Considering the two teams are separated by 22 points in the standings, this will arguably be the Blackhawks biggest test yet.

Despite a slow start to the season, the Avalanche have settled into being every bit of the powerhouse everyone expected this season, especially on offense. They lead the NHL with an average of 4.15 goals per game and are top 10 in every statistical shot category. Recently, the Avalanche have been on a tear, winning six straight and earning at least one point in their last 12 games. They’ve been especially dominant over Central Division opponents with a 9-3-1 record. Even their goaltending — their primary weakness this season — has been excellent as of late with a .929 save percentage. As long as the Avalanche aren’t peaking too soon in the season, they’re definitely a Cup favorite.

Not surprisingly, Nathan MacKinnon leads the Avalanche with 1.45 points-per-game, though he’s shooting at a career low 6.8 percent. What might be a surprise is who leads the team in actual points: Nazem Kadri with 51 (15 G, 36 A). Kadri has always been a good player, but this is easily the best season of his career. Mikko Rantanen (21 G, 27 A), Gabriel Landeskog (15 G, 23 A), and Andre Burakovsky (13 G, 18 A) round out the top-five of what is one of the deepest forward groups in the league.

Forward depth isn’t the only strength of the Avalanche: they have one of the deadliest defense groups in the league. Cale Makar (16 G, 22 A) is a video game on skates and Norris Trophy favorite, Devon Toews (8 G, 23 A) is one of the most underrated two-way defensemen, Samuel Girard (4 G, 19 A) is a pint-sized powerhouse of play-driving, and Erik Johnson (5 G, 10 A) is a steady defense-first presence. With a top-four group like that, it’s not hard to see why the Avalanche are at the top of the league standings.

The only question marks for the Avalanche are in net and on the penalty kill, though those facts are related. As mentioned above, the goaltending has been stellar lately, but their collective save percentage of .902 for the full season is only good for 19th in the league. It’s even worse on the penalty kill — 28th with a .842 save-percentage — which is why their PK is only successful 74.8 percent of the time. The Avalanche have to hope the recent uptick in play from their goalies is here to stay.

After being embarrassed by the Minnesota Wild on Friday night, the Blackhawks responded well in the rematch the next night but still left with only the loser point to show for it. They’re now on a three-game losing streak after having their first five-game point streak of the season. Their offense is still is an issue, but it’s been mildly better of late: they’ve averaged 2.6 goals over their last 10 games, up from 2.11 the rest of the season prior, but unfortunately averaged 2.9 goals against in the same span. A lot of those goals against did come in the 6-1 thrashing by the Wild, but it’s still not a pretty picture — especially when facing the Avalanche.

In the last game between these two teams, the Blackhawks did manage to push the Avalanche to overtime, but the story that night bears a resemblance to many games for the Blackhawks: their inability to hold onto a lead. Like the Wild game on Saturday, the Blackhawks had a 3-2 lead against the Avalanche for most of the third period, only to fall in overtime after a late goal in regulation. It’s good that the Blackhawks got a lead against two of the best teams in the league by record, but it also shows how they haven’t mastered the finishing touch yet.

In terms of players notes from the last game: Seth Jones picked up a point and skated 32:05 in his second game back from COVID-19 Protocol; Henrik Borgström scored twice after being a healthy scratch the game prior; Alex DeBrincat scored for the first time in five games, Patrick Kane had his nine-game, 11-point steak snapped; and Dylan Strome won 14-of-20 faceoffs for team lead, bringing his season total to 55.9 percent and second only to Jonathan Toews.

After Kevin Lankinen was placed on injured reserve Sunday with a hand injury, the Blackhawks recalled goalie prospect Arvid Söderblom to back-up Marc-André Fleury in net. While it would be nice to see Söderblom get another NHL game or two for his development, let’s hope the team in front of Fleury does their job — unlike Friday night — so that game isn’t in relief of Fleury.

Blackhawks — Statistic — Avalanche

46.61% (27th) — 5-on-5 Corsi For — 53.16% (6th)

45.47% (28th) — 5-on-5 Expected goals for — 52.67% (10th)

2.34 (29th) — Goals per game — 4.15 (1st)

3.27 (22nd) — Goals against per game — 3.03 (19th)

49.4% (20th) — Faceoffs — 47.3% (28th)

18.9% (18th) — Power play — 24.5% (10th)

76.0% (25th) — Penalty kill — 74.8% (27th)

Projected lineups (subject to change)

Blackhawks

Hagel — Strome — Kane

DeBrincat — Toews — Lafferty

Kubalik — Dach — Kurashev

Borgström — Carpenter — Entwistle

McCabe — S. Jones

de Haan — Murphy

C. Jones — Gustafsson

Fleury

Söderbloom

Avalanche

Landeskog — MacKinnon — Rantanen

Nichushkin — Kadri — Burakovsky

O’Connor — Newhook — Compher

Aube-Kubel — Maltsev — Jost

Toews — Makar

Johnson — Girard

MacDermid — Johnson

Kuemper

Francouz

How to watch

When: 8 p.m. CT

Where: Ball Arena, Denver

TV: NBC Sports Chicago