The Closest Division In Hockey

By Nick Fathergill

With less than 30 games remaining for most teams in the NHL season, the upcoming two months are do or die for potential playoff clubs. This year, the NHL Central is an unusually deep division, with every team within 6 points of a playoff spot. Here’s a brief summary of what each team in the Central has to do to reach the postseason.

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Nashville Predators (36-12-6, 78 points, 1st in Western Conference) – Keep on keepin’ on.

The Predators are cruising right now. Winners of their last three and leaders of the West, the boys from Tennessee are in the drivers seat. The return of Vezina Trophy hopeful Pekka Rinne on Thursday (sprained knee) only increases the chances of the President’s Trophy coming home to roost in Nashville. As long as Pekka continues to play at an elite level (.929 save percentage and 2.01 GAA, according to NHL.com), the Predators only need to score at a normal level to snag the 1st seed in the West.

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St. Louis Blues (35-15-4, 74 points, 3rd in Western Conference) – Keep putting the puck in the net.

The Blues are coming off a six-game winning streak that took them to 2nd place in the Central. Known known last year for stellar defense (Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester), the team has emerged into an offensive juggernaut. NHL.com shows their 3.04 goals per game at 3rd in the NHL, while maintaining a solid 2.45 goals allowed per game (tied-6th). Emerging superstar Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team with 28 goals, and if he can continue to produce at this high level, the Blues will be sitting pretty come April.

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Chicago Blackhawks (33-18-3, 69 points, 4th in Western Conference) – Maintain balance on the road

The Blackhawks roster is seemingly unfair. With a SECOND line that includes Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane, it’s no wonder the Hawks’ 2.91 goals/game is 8th in the NHL (NHL.com). Additionally, the defensive talents of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, combined with G Corey Crawford’s tremendous season (.921 save %, 2.25 GAA, according to NHL.com) have shut opponents down to 2.26 goals/game (2nd). The most impressive part, though, is how balanced they’ve been. A record of 16-7-2 at home and 17-11-1 on the road translates into success down the road, and especially in the playoffs.

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Winnipeg Jets (28-18-10, 64 points, 5th in Western Conference) – Hold off the rest of the pack 

The Jets, even with a .500 record, would be playoff bound if the season ended today strictly because of their overtime losses. Everything about this team is mediocre. They’re 18th in goals/game, 11th in goals/game allowed, 21th in power play %, 13th in the penalty kill (NHL.com). However, because of all the losses in OT, the Jets would be the first Wild Card in the playoffs and get the 7th seed. At 7 points ahead of Minnesota (9th), the Jets simply need to be mediocre enough to keep averaging just over a point per game.

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Minnesota Wild (26-20-7, 59 points, 9th in Western Conference) – Stay hot

The Wild are currently on an eight-game point streak, with six of those coming in wins. With a big match against the Vancouver Canucks coming up on February 16th, the Wild could very well control their own destiny. Big stat: during the last seven games, the Wild have only allowed eight goals, thanks to three shutouts from midseason pickup Devan Dubnyk (NHL.com). His continued success is crucial for the Wild to make a run.

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Dallas Stars (25-21-8, 58 points, 11th in Western Conference) – Play defense!

The Stars’ Tyler Seguin is one of the fiercest goal scorers in the league, and his 29 goals (3rd) and 59 points (1st) have the Stars scoring at a rapid pace (3.15/game, 2nd in the league, according to espn.com). However, Dallas also allows 3.20 goals/game (28th) and 31.0 shots/game (24th). This is due, in part, to goalie Kari Lehtonen’s poor play between the pipes at 33rd in both save % and GAA (NHL.com). However, the blueliners in front of him need to eliminate uneven chances and play the puck stronger. The emergence of possible Calder Memoria Trophy candidate John Klingberg could be a positive going forward, but right now, the Stars need to cut down opposing chances.

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Colorado Avalanche (22-21-11, 55 points, 12th in Western Conference) – Return to last year’s form

This is a tricky one. According to NHL.com, youngsters Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon haven’t produced at nearly the same level this year (0.57 and 0.54 points/game compared to 0.80 and 0.77, respectively). Veteran forwards Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, and Matt Duchene have been respectable this year, but the lack of depth behind them has forced Colorado into a pickle. The loss of blueliner Erik Johnson (12 goals in 47 games, according to NHL.com) doesn’t help going forward. However, last year the Avalanche won the Central with 112 points and a very similar roster. If Landeskog, MacKinnon and Duchene return to last year’s form, a playoff spot could be possible this year too. Very improbable, but with hockey: you never know.

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