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Avalanche-Blackhawks Preview

AP - Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks' offensive dominance has been unmatched this season. A recent stretch of defensive consistency adds to the puzzle for opponents as the Central Division leaders look for their seventh win in nine games.

The Blackhawks return from the NHL's holiday break to host the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night in the first of back-to-back weekend matchups against the two teams chasing them in the division.

Chicago (26-7-6) is 6-1-1 since Dec. 8, and it has allowed more than two regulation goals once in that time. A 5-2 home win Monday over New Jersey was the Blackhawks' 15th game with at least five goals, and they outshot the Devils 37-12.

"I thought it was one of our better games all year as far as puck possession, directing plays," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought we did everything we were looking to do in the game. I liked their energy, I liked their thought process, our purpose."

Patrick Kane scored for a third straight game to extend his point streak to 12 games. He has four points in his last two games against Colorado.

The Avalanche (23-10-3) are completing a difficult three-game road stretch that has started with a pair shootout losses against Los Angeles and San Jose. They led three times in Monday's 5-4 defeat to the Sharks and settled for a point.

"It's too bad, but at the same time we showed a lot of character," coach Patrick Roy said. "We played well in the third period. We scored two big goals and then they made a great play to tie it."

In their only meeting so far this season, the Avalanche beat the Blackhawks 5-1 on Nov. 19 in Colorado - the only time this season Chicago has failed to score at least twice.

Against the Sharks, the Avalanche scored for the fourth straight game on the power play after going 11 games without doing so. They've gotten it together with a 5-for-15 mark in their last four.

It has some considerable ground to cover to reach Chicago's level. The Blackhawks have 15 power-play goals in their last 12 games, a league high since Nov. 30 while converting at a 30.6 percent rate.

While the Blackhawks' offensive consistency has them scoring a league-best 3.62 goals per game, their recent stretch of solid play in the defensive zone has come without No. 1 goaltender Corey Crawford.

Crawford has been out since suffering a lower-body injury on Dec. 8 and was scheduled to resume practicing this week.

Antti Raanta has filled in for Crawford and fellow injured goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who entered the season as Chicago's backup, with an 8-1-2 season record and 1.47 goals-against average in the team's current 3-0-1 stretch.

The blue-liners in front of Raanta have been doing more than providing him with comfortable shot totals. Led by Duncan Keith's 33 points, Chicago defensemen lead the NHL with 2.87 points a game.

"I love our defense. They've been huge for us the past two seasons," forward Patrick Sharp said. "They all skate well. They all move the puck and with the forwards that we have in our locker room, we like to get it with speed and they do a good job of getting it to us. Our defense (has) been the key to our team this year."

The Blackhawks visit St. Louis, the team between Chicago and Colorado in the standings, on Saturday.

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