1. Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was brilliant and the difference again. The Blackhawks may not have gotten as many looks around the net, especially the rebound variety, as they would have liked in the game, but they had some high-quality chances, and Varlamov was there to reject them. He won all four of his starts against the Blackhawks this season, stopping 168 of 175 shots for a .960 save percentage. What got goals past Varlamov on Wednesday were a special move by Patrick Kane in the second period and six attackers on the ice in the final minutes. He made 37 saves on 39 shots. The Blackhawks’ inability to figure him out in the regular season has to be a cause for some concern if they meet in the playoffs. As of now, the Avalanche would also possess home-ice advantage against the Blackhawks in the first round.
Unable to solve them for the fourth time in five tries this season, the Blackhawks dropped into third place in the NHL’s Central Division after they were overtaken by the Avalanche in the standings following a 3-2 loss here.
“That’s a bold statement,” said Toews, whose streak of four consecutive games with a goal came to a sour end. “I think whoever said that is getting ahead of themselves. That’s getting a little ahead of yourself.”
Maybe it is ... for now, at least. In reality though, (the reality of the regular season albeit), it’s black and white. The Blackhawks have not been able to beat the Avs when Colorado’s Russian goalie starts in front of the net.
In the Hawks’ only win of the series, Colorado backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere was burned for seven goals in a 7-2 win for Chicago back in December. (Even in that game, Varlamov came on in relief and stopped all 13 chances he saw to add to his domination over Chicago and its NHL-best offense.)
And Wednesday, Varlamov was again terrific. Again masterful. Again clutch. He made 37 saves, giving him 168 saves on 175 shots against the Blackhawks this season.
“We have to find a way to beat him for sure. He’s been great for them,” Toews said. “We need to figure that out.”
Only Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad figured out Varlamov on this night. (Kane got him twice, if you count when he bulldozed Varlamov in the crease in the second period.)
As far as the scoreboard goes, however, Kane scored another highlight-reel goal midway through the second period to cut the deficit to 2-1. And later, Saad scored off a rebound with just over two minutes left in the game to cut the lead to 3-2.
The Avs held on, however, despite chance after chance in the final minute for the Blackhawks.
“We just couldn’t find the net for some reason there at the end,” Toews said.
There’s a bright side: The Hawks are still playing well.
The big concern from Denver, however, is the very real possibility that the Blackhawks and Avs could face each other in the first round of the playoffs.
Many might find the Avs to have most of the momentum and the confidence if that came to fruition.
Predictably, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville is not one of them.
“I think, of course, in the regular season there are some teams that you don’t have as good of records [against] as you’d like,.” Quenneville said. “It looks like it’s a landslide down against you. But every game has been different, every game has been close.”
Raanta more comfortable, but loses in Denver
Backup goalie Antti Raanta felt much better in his second appearance in the Mile High City.
The result, however, was the same.
Coming off a nervous debut when he relieved starter Corey Crawford in Denver back in November -- a game which Colorado won 5-1 -- Raanta made 26 saves on 29 shots in Wednesday’s loss.
At times, Raanta bailed his team out, turning away Colorado’s first three power plays. And other times, he had no chance, including when the Avs’ Ryan O'Reilly beat him on a two-man advantage.
It was one shot, in particular though, that will bug Raanta until his next start: the first goal of the game. It happened when Brad Malone, who was recalled from the AHL for Wednesday’s game, barreled down the left boards and put a near-parallel goal on net with 1:36 left in the first period.
Raanta, who was making his first start since Jan. 28, couldn’t believe he let it in.
“That was a bad goal to give up,” the 24-year-old said. “I have to stop those, and I’ll work to fix those things. I can’t have those go by me. But I'll work and get better, and get those things fixed.”
DENVER, Colo. -- Here’s a quick look at how the Chicago Blackhawks lost to the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday.
How it happened: Hoping to stay in the No. 2 position in the Central Division, the Blackhawks were again unable to beat Semyon Varlamov and the Avalanche. Another stout performance from the Russian goalie was just enough to beat rookie Hawks goalie Antti Raanta, who played for the first time since Jan. 28. Only Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad got to Varlamov on this night, but it wasn’t enough. First, Kane scored another one of his straight-to-YouTube goals, this one midway through the second period to cut the deficit to 2-1. And later, Saad scored off a rebound with just more than two minutes left in the game to cut the lead to 3-2. The Avs, however, held on. Brad Malone, who was recalled from the AHL for Wednesday’s game, led it off for Colorado when he barreled down the left boards and put a near parallel goal on net with 1:36 left in the first period. And early in the second, Matt Duchene took another piece of Raanta’s confidence when he found the net from the right side of the circle to give the Avs the 2-0 lead. Down two players, Raanta gave up the dagger midway through the third period, when Ryan O'Reilly beat him on the power play to put the Avs ahead in commanding fashion at 3-1.
What it means: As far the short-term outlook, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville’s decision to start Raanta looks questionable. Hoping to give the Hawks a spark against the Avs, as well as rest Corey Crawford, Raanta looked uneasy early and never completely settled in, giving up three goals on 29 shots. But the real disappointment may have been the leading scoring team in the NHL; the Hawks again could not find the winning recipe to beat the Avs’ starting goalie. If the two squads should meet in the postseason, the Avs should have some confidence against the defending champs, winning four of their five meetings in the regular season.
Player of the game: Varlamov made 37 saves, giving him 168 saves on 175 shots against the Blackhawks this season. He has won all four of his starts against Chicago.
Stat of the game: The Blackhawks went 0-for-3 in power plays. There were a lot of chances, but every time they came up with nothing.
What’s next: After splitting the first two games of the season, the Hawks play the Nashville Predators on Friday in Chicago during the first of three remaining matchups.
DENVER -- Semyon Varlamov stopped 37 shots for his 100th NHL win and Brad Malone scored his first goal of the season, helping the Colorado Avalanche hold off the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 on Wednesday night.
Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly added goals as the Avalanche took four of five from the Blackhawks in the season series. They also moved a point ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champions for second place in the Central Division.
With a goal and an assist, Duchene extended his points streak to a career-best nine games.
Varlamov became the fourth Russian-born goaltender to record 100 wins, joining Evgeni Nabokov (347), Nikolai Khabibulin (333) and Ilya Bryzgalov (213). This also was Varlamov's 33rd win, second-most in the league behind Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury (34).
With the trade deadline wrapped up, teams viewing the bigger picture soon will be turning their attention to their free agents. That's not necessarily a good thing for those looking to use free agency this summer as a way to restock their franchise. There are good players on the top 25 unrestricted free-agent list below, but it only thins out from there.
"I have the preliminary list," said Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray, who is going to have a lot of money to work with this summer. "You can look at that and say, 'OK, we have 10 guys on that list we like, they can sign between now and then.' So I don't get too excited about that list."
With teams as diligent as ever about signing their players to long-term contracts before they hit free agency, the number of available quality players is already a small one. Supply and demand will put general managers in a tough spot.
"Obviously, it's getting tougher and tougher," Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon said during a quick chat Tuesday.
Like Murray, Tallon is going to have money to spend this summer.
"There's some assets we're interested in," he said. "We've identified who we like, who fit into our player allotment, where they would fit into our organization and how they would help our young guys develop quicker."
This list, like Murray's preliminary list, is going to change between now and July 1, but here's an early look at the top 25 unrestricted free agents for this summer, ranked in order of the most value they'll provide their next team:
Note: All cap hit data is courtesy of CapGeek.com.
At this point in Miller's career, he has to decide where he thinks he has the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup. "That's what it comes down to," one NHL source said. "That is the determining factor." It's hard to argue there's a better spot than the one Murray sent him to before the trade deadline. The Blues really like Jake Allen, but are firmly in the middle of a Stanley Cup window, and Miller gives them the best chance to win. It might be the perfect marriage. If the Ducks decide to let Jonas Hiller walk this summer, Anaheim is another city that would intrigue Miller, who spends offseason time in California. The problem there is that Ducks GM Bob Murray has no shortage of goalie options in the system. Miller's future may hinge on how things go this postseason in St. Louis.
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Really though, it shouldn’t be that far of a stretch to think Raanta would get the nod -- even considering the magnitude of Wednesday night’s Central Division showdown.
Despite it being his first start since Jan. 28, the 24-year-old netminder remains confident as he’s proved to be more than trustworthy as the Hawks’ No. 2 goalie since his November debut, when he relieved starter Corey Crawford late in the first period in the Mile High City.
In fact, Raanta, who played for the AHL's Rockford IceHogs earlier in the season, is 12-2-3 with a 2.40 goals against average as a Hawk -- which includes a 16-save performance against the Avs back on Dec. 27, a game which Chicago won, 7-2.
Wednesday, he’ll fill in for Crawford, who has started the team’s last 10 games.
With the trade deadline behind us, it's time to take a look at some young players who may affect the stretch run into the NHL playoffs.
The players selected are not an exclusive list. The criteria were more along the lines of players I thought were interesting for the purposes of this column or ones I haven't profiled in a while. I'm aware players not profiled, such as Olli Maatta and Nathan MacKinnon, will be big parts of the stretch run.
The big name in the prospect world this week is Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. For years, Kuznetsov has been an elite prospect outside the NHL. He was ranked second in my recent top 50 drafted prospects update. People know about his dominant World Junior performance, where he was named tournament MVP, and the big numbers he has put up in the KHL, especially relative to his age.
Kuznetsov's stats took a drop from last season, though. His shots per game dropped by 1.4 (stats as of Monday), his average ice dipped about a minute, and his points and goals rate dropped despite the fact his shooting percentage increased.
However, when I asked a Russian scout if he was more pessimistic about Kuznetsov from last season, he replied, "Not as a player, but the injuries raise some concerns and the NHL is tougher physically," noting some of the minor injuries he's had recently. "When he's healthy, he's played great. Even last year's playoffs where he didn't score much he played well."
In his first NHL game against Pittsburgh on Monday, Kuznetsov played mostly on the fourth line with Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle with the occasional shift on Alex Ovechkin's line. Kuznetsov's line generated 70 percent of the shots toward the opposing end. Beagle and Wilson have typically been around the 45 percent mark this season.
In his second game, Kuznetsov's usage was in Washington's top nine. He faced quality opponents on a number of shifts and played alongside Nicklas Backstrom for a good chunk of time while his team got 53 percent of the even-strength shots.
Kuznetsov's skating, puck skills and, at times, vision have looked sharp and distinguishable from some of his teammates on the top nine. He has shown the ability to gain the zone and the offensive instincts to make plays with the puck. Where he has lacked so far has been in physical battles. Nobody expects him to ever be great in that area, but to help his team more going forward, he'll need to find a way to retrieve the puck in the offensive zone when it isn't carried in.
Washington has said Kuznetsov will need to earn his way up the lineup, which is possible for him to do in a short amount of time with health and a quick adjustment to the NHL pace. He has all the tools to be a top-tier player and is getting close to his physical prime (usually 25 years old). Time will tell if he can provide the short- and long-term spark the Capitals desperately need, especially following two consecutive losses to Pittsburgh.
Here are six more young players currently on my radar:
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That's the sort of effect Varlamov has had whenever he's taken the net against the Blackhawks this season. He has been among the league's top goaltenders against all opponents this season, but he's been extra special against Chicago.
Varlamov has stopped 131 of 136 shots for a .963 save percentage and won all three of his starts against the Blackhawks this season.
On Wednesday, Varlamov will get one more regular-season chance to thwart the Blackhawks and their league-best offense. If the Avalanche win, they will move ahead of the Blackhawks and into second place in the Central.
"We're happy to have a chance to play for second place [Wednesday]," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said Tuesday. "We don't know what's going to transpire by the end of the season. But just to be in that position having home-ice advantage, it means a lot to our team. At the same time, we know Chicago is a very good team. We know that they're a good challenge for our team."
The Blackhawks see their challenge as trying to find ways to get pucks by Varlamov. He made 36 saves on 38 shots against them in a 4-2 win on March 4. He made a season-high 46 saves on 48 shots in a 3-2 overtime win on Jan. 14. He had 36 saves on 37 shots in a 5-1 win on Nov. 19. He also had the backup effort on Dec. 27.
"He's a great goalie," Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw said Tuesday. "He always stands on his head in those big games. We've just got to get traffic and get pucks to the net. They're not all going to be pretty, but we've got to find a way to put an ugly one in."
Shaw accounted for one of the five Blackhawks goals against Varlamov when he scored on a rebound on Jan. 14. The other Blackhawks goal that game came when Johnny Oduya redirected a Brandon Saad shot in front of the net.
Saad believes the key Wednesday will be capitalizing on those sort of chances again around the net.
"He's done a great job against us, but I don't think we worry about it too much," Saad said. "We've faced some good goaltenders. Getting inside, getting to the net [is important]. We're getting shots, but they may not be the best quality shots. I think bearing down and getting to the net and getting rebounds is why we'll have success."
Whichever team finds success Wednesday could end up benefiting greatly down the road. The Blackhawks, Avalanche and St. Louis Blues are jockeying for spots atop the Central. After 65 games, the Blues lead the way with 95 points and a 44-14-7 record and are followed by the Blackhawks with 90 points and a 38-13-14 record and the Avalanche with 89 points and a 42-14-5 record.
The Blackhawks and Avalanche don't meet again after Wednesday. The Blackhawks and Blues play twice more, and the Blues and Avalanche face each other once more.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville knows the importance of Wednesday's matchup.
"I just think we've got to prioritize every shift and take nothing for granted against that team because they're going to be excited," Quenneville said. "It's our last four-point game against them. At the end, it could have a lot to do with sorting out who's going to finish ahead of who."
Quenneville said Hjalmarsson was having a "maintenance day," and that the fact Hjalmarsson blocked two shots off his leg during the third period Sunday "probably had something to do with" him missing practice Tuesday.
Quenneville also said Marian Hossa was expected to skate alone in Chicago on Wednesday. He will not travel with the Blackhawks to Colorado. Hossa suffered an upper-body injury March 1 and was expected to miss 2-3 weeks. Quenneville said Hossa was getting closer to returning to game action.
"We'll see," Quenneville said of Hossa's playing. "We'll get a better idea when we get him together with our team. I don't think he's too far away."
"I'm expecting him to come here when his season's done," Quenneville said. "We'll see after that."
The 19-year-old Teravainen, drafted by the Blackhawks in the first round in 2012, is playing for Jokerit in the Liiga in his native Finland. He signed an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks in August.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said on March 1 that Teravainen's arrival to the team depended on his season in Finland being done and him not playing for Finland in the World Championship in Belarus in May.
According to a source, Finland is expected to give Teravainen its blessing to play for the Blackhawks and provide him an opportunity to be a part of the Stanley Cup playoffs instead of asking him to play for his country in the World Championship.
“Well, we haven’t played him in a while, and he beat these guys,” Quenneville said after practice Tuesday. “That’s part of it.”
Raanta is 12-2-3 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .904 save percentage in 19 games this season. He stopped 16-of-18 shots in a 7-2 win against the Avalanche on Dec. 27.
Raanta has a 2.75 goals-against average and .864 save percentage in his last four games. He was pulled in the second period after giving up four goals on 15 shots in his last start Jan. 28.
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford has started the team’s last 10 games. He is 25-11-10 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .918 save percentage this season.