Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
The Stickiest of the Icky: Mile High Hockey
As difficult as it may be to compute, the Hawks tonight will play game 49 tonight of the 2013-2014 season, now surpassing last year’s abbreviated campaign, still four days shy of a year from when that season started . They’re currently only 7 points off their record pace of last year (though Friday’s guests the Ducks are only 2 back), though it feels like it’s been a a bit bumpier ride so far. But with a full 82 on the docket on this go-around, longevity will once again be rewarded, which is something the visiting and upstart Avalanche are beginning to deal with themselves.
After bursting out of the gate this season, things have cooled a bit for the Avs, who after starting the season 14-2-0 have settled into the new central firmly entrenched in 3rd place for the time being, going 14-10-5 since. Part of the reason for this market correction has been the Avs’ underwater team Corsi rate, only controlling 47.6% of all shot attempts in games played (good for 25th overall), and the team even strength save percentage between Vodka Breath and J-S Giguere has slipped only slightly from 95ish% to 93%. This still leaves them with a net PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) of 102%, which suggest they’re still overachieving slightly.
This isn’t to say that the Avalanche aren’t loaded with lightning quick forwards up front, with rookie Nathan MacKinnon hitting his stride a bit to go along with the feats of Ryan O’Reilly, Gabe “Susan” Landeskog, and Black Hole Sun video extra Matt Duchene, the Avs are good for 2.9 goals per, good for 6th in the league, even if they are a bit top-heavy. They’ll have to do so tonight without Paul Stastny, who suffered a leg injury on Saturday against the Wild. As a result, Roy will dress 7 defensemen tonight, leaving the Avs even more hindered even if O’Reilly can fill in at center if need be.
That blue line corps will include Tyson Barrie in its midst, returning from a shoulder injury. Barrie, like much of the bottom 2/3rds-ish of the Avs blue line, is a bit undersized but with some good offensive instincts, and can be made to run around in his own zone a bit. The defacto top pairing of Jan Hejda and Erik Johnson would likely make a fantastic second unit somewhere, but by virtue of there being few other options to play top competition in a positionally sound fashion, these two regularly take the brunt of the chances against, facing the stiffest quality of competition with the most gulag-caliber of zone starts.
In net will be the controversial Semyon Varlamov, who was last seen on UC ice mopping up what was left of J-S Giguere, who is now on IR himself. While much debate has swirled around the netminder this year, little can be debated regarding his play, still boasting a .926 save percentage despite having his GAA balloon all the way up to 2.36 from its early season levels as a result of the Avs consistently getting out chanced of late. Varlamov is athletic and acrobatic, and jamming the crease for ugly goals will be paramount if Varlamov shows to be on his game in the early going.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, Sunday’s win against a completely disorganized Oilers squad counts as only a small step toward extracting themselves from whatever fogginess has beset them since the turn of the calendar year. The line configurations from Sunday remain in tact with Andrew Shaw getting another opportunity to center Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad. While Shaw still needs to do some convincing to that he is capable of such a role (even as a center period, let alone one for Kane), the results in the small sample size of he and Kane playing together are hard to argue with. But basically anything that keeps Michal Handzus away from Kane is a welcome alternative at this point.
On the blue line, Michal Rozsival once again gets his turn to partner with the sputtering Nick Leddy, who could use some consistency in his partners to jumpstart his game. Having Leddy be able to trust his partner to rush the puck up the ice is key to deepening the Hawks attack, rather than having to cover for Sheldon Brookbank’s adventures in the defensive zone, and those of Mike Kostka up the ice.
Corey Crawford will get yet another crack at earning his first victory since returning from injury, even if he’s deserved far better than the results on his record to this point. That skate blade save alone in Montreal should have been made to stand up, but alas, it was not to be. The important thing will be for Crawford to maintain the solid positioning he’s shown since returning, particularly with a speedy Avs forward corps on the attack.
The 7-2 beat down the Avs absorbed on December 27th isn’t so far in the rearview that they’ve likely forgotten it, so look for them to hit the ice buzzing even by their standards. The key will be for the Hawks to show the defensive structure and controlled breakouts that differentiate them from this group, and that means no camping out at the far blue line Mr. Sharp. The chances will be there against this group, especially on home ice. Let’s go Hawks.