Times have changed as Colorado tops the Hawks 3-2 - MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

Times have changed as Colorado tops the Hawks 3-2

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

On Wednesday night, in an important Western Conference matchup Colorado defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2. With the win the young, talented and well-coached Avalanche have jumped over Chicago and have sole possession of second place in the Central Division.

Before the season began the Blackhawks were overwhelming favorites to win the Central. Teams like the Blues and Avalanche were on the improve but most thought they had lessons to learn. Evidently both clubs are quick studies as they are having better seasons than the Hawks.

St. Louis currently sits atop the Western Conference even though last summer the Blackhawks were a 7-2 favorites to win the West.

What is unfolding is the fact other clubs have caught up to the Blackhawks, at least for the regular season. Joel Quenneville is going to be a Hall of Fame inductee someday and has done a great job in total while here. These days Chicago doesn't have as big an edge in talent as in the past, and Quenneville faces a bigger challenge.

Most likely Quenneville would agree it is much easier to make decisions when you have the deepest and most highly-skilled team. Right now his decision making concerning lineup choices still seems like he feels that way, but the strength of rolling four lines has not been there.

Those that point out Quenneville no longer can get away with dressing a lineup that isn't going to provide the best effort are correct. The simple truth is the Blackhawks are operating on a thinner margin for error. On many nights despite winning there are holes in their lineup.

It wouldn't only be fair to say the fourth line has become the third line. It is more like the third line has disappeared.

Quenneville is grasping. The third line Wednesday night ended up being comprised of a player who has underperformed the entire year, a defenseman playing forward and another whose best playing days are long gone.

Maybe Quenneville thought Niklas Hjalmarsson or another defenseman wasn't 100% so he dressed Sheldon Brookbank. It appeared as if Hjalmarsson and others were fine. But for whatever reason Quenneville chose to play Brookbank at wing versus one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

Maybe Quenneville's reasoning had more to do with being disappointed in the play of the newly acquired Peter Regin. That's assuming Regin was healthy enough to play, which seems likely.

In some ways Michal Handzus in the lineup meant the Blackhawks were down more than one forward. Versus the speedy Avalanche, Handzus looked like he was skating in another time zone. He appeared slower than usual and maybe the altitude change was a factor. When teamed with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, Handzus was way behind the play.

Handzus started the night as the second line center but Quenneville saw that combination wasn't creating much offense. He then leaned on his best players as Kane and Jonathan Toews had over 23 minutes of playing time. Those ice time totals far exceed any forwards and also every player on Colorado except one defenseman. Handzus then sunk to the third line and Quenneville basically used Kane, Toews, Brandon Saad and Sharp over and over again.

Starting Antti Raanta in goal was another interesting decision by Quenneville. Raanta hadn't played in a match since January 28. Sooner or later Raanta has to play but with Nashville and Detroit coming to town this weekend, starting him in Colorado was a surprise.

It's always easy to question decisions from afar but Quenneville's lineup Wednesday night had many scratching their heads. The Raanta decision made some sense considering Semyon Varlamov has outplayed Corey Crawford a few times this season.

Raanta gave the impression he wasn't rusty making a handful of difficult saves to start the game. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, Raanta let in an awful goal with less than two minutes remaining in the opening frame.

That was a tough one to overcome and then to make matters worse Colorado scores in the opening minute of the second period. Raanta couldn't be faulted that time as Matt Duchene made the most of a fortunate deflection off Hjalmarsson and converted on a one timer.

Andrew Shaw who usually doesn't play a dumb game and take stupid penalties did just that and paid for it. After Shaw lost his composure and checked a player without the puck, Marcus Kruger was sent to the box on a delay of game penalty. Shaw going off for interference was bad enough but an unlucky break for Kruger as he sent a puck directly over the glass sealed the deal.

Without one of their better penalty killers the Hawks almost killed off the entire two man advantage for Colorado. When the Avalanche scored with seconds remaining on the power play it gave them a two goal lead which was too much to overcome. Against a very good team a soft goal and bad penalty can be the difference.

Kane had a great game and has played with a strong resolve since returning from the Olympics. Saad is emerging as a really good young forward that seems to perform well in any role. Kane's highlight reel goal and Saad's marker late in the third frame were all the Hawks could manage.

Once again Varlamov had a big night and continues to play well versus the Hawks. Varlamov is very good no doubt, and sometimes good goalies get lucky. That was the case as the goal post bailed Varlamov out a few times Wednesday night. The Hawks can't pick up rebounds against Varlamov and they are available, but credit has to be given to the Av's.

Colorado head coach Patrick Roy has his club playing consistently at a high level. The Av's seem to play a fast-paced but patient game and take advantage of their goal scoring opportunities. Colorado in some ways resembles the Blackhawks of about four or five years ago.

No doubt the Hawks miss the injured Marian Hossa but his absence wasn't the main cause of the loss. Quenneville has holes to fill in his lineup even if Hossa was playing. The effort was there and the Hawks controlled much of the play at even strength but didn't convert on the power play.

The next two games are opportunities for the Blackhawks to bank very important points. To have any chance to surpass the Blues and Avalanche the Hawks can't afford many missteps.

The Predators are in town on Friday night and the Red Wings pay a visit to the United Center on Sunday. The Hawks need to capture all four points in hopes of moving up in the standings.

Quenneville is still searching for the right mix and there are only 16 games left in the regular season. Times have changed and the Hawks bench boss knows the same and now we will see how he adapts.

Al's Shots

Before the outdoor game a few weeks ago GM Stan Bowman mentioned a reason Michael Kostka was put on waivers was for roster flexibility. Bowman explained they did not want to dress a defenseman to play forward down the stretch, but that is exactly what happened in Colorado.

If a GM doesn't like the way a head coach is using his lineup he has a few choices. With a veteran head coach like Quenneville, telling him who to play doesn't usually work.

In essence the GM provides the roster and the head coach decides on who plays and how much. This is especially true when the coach has won two Cups recently and has a long resume like Quenneville.

So when Bowman wants to make a point, a way to do it is to change the roster. That's what he did with Kostka and the same a couple of years ago when he dealt John Scott.

Many will remember it was sort of a surprise when the Hawks shipped their mascot Scott to the Rangers for a draft pick. Scott even mentioned he was surprised by the trade.

Back then and this year Bowman used his power to shape the roster. But make no mistake, Quenneville still calls the shots concerning who dresses and how much they play.

I will be back on Saturday morning and you can follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia.

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