Much work to do before Hawks solve Avs

DENVER -- Here’s a riddle for the Chicago Blackhawks’ bulletin board: The Colorado Avalanche and its goalie Semyon Varlamov.

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.

The frustration carried to the Pepsi Center locker rooms Wednesday night. When a Denver reporter asked Jonathan Toews if the Avalanche had gotten into the Hawks’ heads, the usually mild-mannered captain turned the color of a bruise and sternly put things into perspective.

“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.

Not once.

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.”