In the years the Chicago Blackhawks were annual Stanley Cup contenders, the Colorado Avalanche seemed to find ways to beat them despite being a perennial lottery team.
The script is flipped this season and it's the Blackhawks who are struggling while the Avalanche are near the top of the Western Conference standings. Chicago can play the role Colorado did for a few years when the two teams meet at Pepsi Center in Denver on Friday night.
The Avalanche have a little advantage going into the matchup. Chicago played in Dallas on Thursday night -- a 5-2 win over the Stars -- so it will be on the second night of a back-to-back against a relatively rested Colorado team. The Avalanche, however, will be shorthanded on defense. Nikita Zadorov suffered a lower-body injury in Wednesday's 2-1 win over Montreal and will miss at least two games.
"Muscular, so I would consider him day-to-day, but he won't play in these next two games," Avalanche coach Jared Bednar told HockeyBuzz.com on Thursday. "I think he just tweaked something."
Colorado (19-10-6) is still very formidable without one of its top defenseman because of the first line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog. Rantanen and Landeskog scored the goals in the win over the Canadiens, and MacKinnon assisted on both.
Rantanen and MacKinnon are 1-2, respectively, in scoring in the NHL, and Landeskog leads the team with 23 goals. Their big seasons are a result of coming in as young players and developing their games at the NHL level.
That is where the Blackhawks are now after winning three Stanley Cups in six seasons (2010 through 2015). Chicago (12-19-6) is experiencing growing pains, which is one reason why it sits in last place in the Central Division.
"Now more than ever, this league is about developing players as you go," Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton told the Chicago Tribune. "It's younger than ever. You need to continue to bring guys along and teach them how they're going to have to play to win."
Chicago's youth development was accelerated by a rash of concussions recently. Goaltender Corey Crawford suffered one against San Jose on Sunday, and center Marcus Kruger was struck by an inadvertent elbow in Tuesday's game against Nashville. Both are out and the Blackhawks are being cautious with the two.
Forward Artem Anisimov missed four games with a concussion suffered Dec. 9 but has returned.
"You only have one brain," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "Any brain trauma, I don't know if there's enough studies out there that show the lasting effects of a concussion and what can happen. So that's the scary part of concussions, and I think that's why the awareness we have out there is a good thing now."
With Crawford out, Collin Delia could get the start in goal against the Avalanche after Cam Ward was in net against Dallas. Colorado is going to start Philipp Grubauer, who is 8-2-3 as the No. 2 netminder behind Semyon Varlamov but has a 3.05 goals-against average.
Grubauer and Varlamov have struggled of late, but Grubauer is coming off a 35-save performance against Montreal.
"Grubi just looked like he was in control of the game, looked real confident and steady in there," Bednar told HockeyBuzz.com.