Varlamov, Avalanche stand in Hawks' way

The Chicago Blackhawks lit up Colorado Avalanche goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere for seven goals on 24 shots through two periods when the teams met in Chicago on Dec. 27.

Semyon Varlamov took over for Giguere in the third period, and the goals ceased. He saved all 13 shots the Blackhawks tried to put past him in the final period.

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."