The Chicago Blackhawks will be a bit short-handed on Saturday night as they return from the Christmas break with a game against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver.
Center Brad Richards will miss his third consecutive game for the Hawks, as he did not make the trip with the team to Colorado. Head coach Joel Quenneville is hopeful that Richards will return to the lineup on Monday night against the Nashville Predators, but in the meantime Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg will split second line center duties.
Defenseman Michal Rozsival will also miss the game after suffering a lower-body injury against the Winnipeg Jets in Tuesday’s loss at the United Center. His absence could mean extended minutes for the Hawks’ top four defensemen, with Tim Erixon and David Rundblad also potentially seeing a bit of extra time as Chicago hits the ice again.
The Blackhawks are coming into Denver at an especially inopportune time, as Colorado seems to be turning the corner after a horrid start to the season. Behind some excellent goaltending by Calvin Pickard, the Avs have grabbed at least a point in each of their last six games, and they’ve won their last three. The big win came on Tuesday night when Colorado shelled St. Louis in a 5-0 rout at the Pepsi Center. Semyon Varlamov returned to the crease after missing six games for Colorado, and he stopped all 26 shots he faced as the Avalanche won their third straight game.
As for Chicago, they are coming off of a sluggish loss to the Jets on Tuesday night, and they struggled in just about every area of the game. Corey Crawford was yanked from the game after allowing three goals, and everyone on the defensive side struggled as well, with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya having arguably their worst game of the season.
The Blackhawks will certainly need to straighten things out on the defensive side of the ice, with a speedy Colorado team capable of giving them fits if they are able to get out and running with the puck. Backchecking by the forwards will also be critical in order to contest zone entries and break up possessions in the neutral zone, and that’s where guys like Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa will have to be at their best.
One other player to keep an eye on in the game is Sharp. The winger turns 32 years old on Saturday night, and if last year’s birthday performance is any indication, he could be in for a big day. Against Colorado one year ago, Sharp picked up a hat trick and had five shots on goal in a 7-2 drubbing of the Avalanche, and the performance likely solidified his spot on Team Canada for the 2014 Sochi Olympics (in which the Canadians won gold).
If Sharp is able to even come close to replicating that performance, the Blackhawks have a good chance to win. The second line will be important in putting some pressure on Colorado’s defense in this game, and Sharp will be right in the middle of that. With Patrick Kane on the other side, it should open up some room for the birthday boy, and he’ll have to make the most of it to help the team get a victory.