Dec 20, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) skates on the ice during the second period against the Vancouver Canucks at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Avalanche - Blackhawks

Who: Chicago Blackhawks (22-8-6)

When: Tonight, 8:00PM EST/6:00PM MDT

Tickets: Avalanche vs. Blackhawks tickets

Your (unconfirmed) Starting Goalies: COL – Semyon Varlamov (16-8-3), CHI – Antti Raanta (8-1-2)

The Dangermen: The last time these two teams met, the Avalanche walked away with a decisive 5-1 win. Since then? The Blackhawks have been arguably the hottest team in hockey. They’ve gone 12-3-2 since then, thanks to the emergence of Antti Raanta (more on him later) and the usual dominance of Patrick Kane.

“Kaner” is second to only Sidney Crosby in the NHL scoring race and sits tied for third in the goals race behind the two Alex’s – Ovechkin and Steen. He’s ridiculously efficient, a playmaker with few peers who sees the ice in all situations. He’ll get his chances whether you like it or not.

Right behind him are the usual suspects: “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews with 34 points, Patrick Sharp with 36 points, Marian Hossa with 32. Oh yeah, those three play on the same line.

The Avalanche are going to have their hands full – the Hawks are one of the deepest offensive teams in the game and it’s no surprise that they lead the league in goals per game. The third best power play in the league doesn’t hurt, either (you know what that means).

The Defenders: That league-leading offense also gets a little bit of help from the back end. Duncan Keith has an incredible 30 assists already and is at nearly a point per game. Just behind him with 26 points (23 assists) is Brent Seabrook. Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy also have at least 10 points. That’s five of the team’s six regular defensemen with double-digits in points.

In case the point totals weren’t enough to tell you, this is one of the best puck-moving defensive units in the league. Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Oduya are just physical enough to make you aware if you’re an opposing forward, but the strength of this team is its ability to move the puck.

The Avalanche are going to need to be at 110% effort and try to get in as many passing lanes as possible. Let these guys get involved and it’ll be too much for the Avs to handle for a full 60 minutes.

Puck Stoppers Inc.: At one point, this was Corey Crawford. He’d been having a typical season for him: 17-6-3 record, 2.47 GAA and .907 save percentage. He’s not going to win any individual awards but he’s good enough to win you a Cup (as we’ve seen).

Dec 20, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Antti Raanta (31) prepares to make a save against the Vancouver Canucks during the third period at the United Center. The Canucks won 3-2 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

But he’s injured now, so Antti Raanta has become the new go-to guy. Since stepping in for Crawford, he’s gone 8-1-2 with a 2.20 GAA and .916 save percentage. He’s not the biggest guy, nor the most talented, but as he’s shown during his time in Finland, he just finds a way to win. He’s solid positionally and has a battler’s mentality. Then again, he is a rookie. Get to him early, get traffic in front. You know the deal.

How the Avs match up: So the Hawks are hot as nards right now and lead the competitive Central Division. Remember how people were saying during the Avs’ hot start that they were deep? This team is deep. Like legit deep. They will score, it’s just a matter of who’s gonna do it.

Then again, the last time these two teams met, the Avalanche surprisingly dispatched the Hawks with an exclamation point. “That’s why they play the game” and all that. The one thing going for the Avalanche is that they’re up against a rookie netminder who isn’t the all-world type. Get to him early, pepper him with shots, put a few asses in his face and you have a chance.

Unless they give half a dozen power play chances to this team, then it’s death and destruction all around.

Key Matchup: Forecheck vs Puck Moving Defense

Cower in fear if: Patrick Kane continues his reign of terror.

The Hawks defense isn’t getting much action in their faces, allowing them to quickly move the puck out of their zone and jump into the play.

The Avs don’t STAY OUT OF THE DAMN BOX.

Laugh maniacally if: Matt Duchene says “oh yeah?” and out ridiculouses (that’s a word) Kaner.

Varly has a Herculean effort.

Ryan O’Reilly continues his hot streak.

Silly predictions: Kane picks up at least a point; so does Duchene; Varly keeps the Avalanche in it despite an early onslaught from the Hawks; the penalty kill will likely cost the Avalanche this game.

Final:  4-3 Blackhawks

Ryan is the editor of Mile High Sticking as well as co-owner of The Farm Club. Follow him on Twitter to talk Avs, Sabres, hockey in general, or to let him know what a yutz he is.

Tags: 2013-14 Season Antti Raanta Brent Seabrook Chicago Blackhawks Colorado Avalanche Duncan Keith Jonathan Toews Marian Hossa Matt Duchene NHL Patrick Kane Semyon Varlamov

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