As we have just crested into the half way mark of the NHL season, it is incredible to imagine that 4 of the 5 Central Division teams are currently in a playoff spot. In fact, the Blues, Hawks, Wings and Preds are ranked 2nd, 4th, 5th & 6th respectively and have only 5 points separating them. It really is a giant mess at the top of the Western Conference, but one many fans have been waiting on for quite some time. In fact, beyond 2008-09 when Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Columbus all qualified, the last time that 4 Central Division teams made the post season was in 1997-98 when Dallas (1), Detroit (2), St. Louis (3) and Phoenix (6) all advanced to the playoffs. That season saw the Red Wings win 4 straight over the Washington Capitals to take the Stanley Cup. That was a long time ago, in a 26 team league with only 4 divisions. Could we really see it again this year?
Well, the Hockey News predicted it, suggesting that Chicago would win the division and Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville would all qualify in that order. Brandon Schlager, a columnisht of thehockeywriters.com came very close, predicting the Hawks, Wings and Blues to make it in, but pushed the Predators into 9th place. Have a read of his extensive predictions here. Oh and by the way, there’s still a lot of hockey to play.
Chicago has been in a playoff spot all year and yet with 55 points, only 8 points separate the 4th place Blackhawks and the 9th Place Dallas Stars. Chicago defeated the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets last night, the only Central Division team not in a playoff spot. But that win ended a 4 game losing skid, their longest of the season, which really kept them from creating space between the other teams in the division. They are tied with the Blues for first in the Central but will need to get back in the win column more regularly to stay close to St. Louis.
The Detroit Red Wings who defeated the Hawks on Sunday night in OT, which was smack dab in the middle of a pair of laughers. The Toronto Maple Leafs paid the Blues and Hawks an old Norris Division favor by holding onto a 4-3 win at the Air Canada Centre. Then, the New York Islanders absolutely destroyed the Wings in a 5-1 affair last night to stop them from keeping pace with the others. Despite these two losses, the Wings are only 2 points out of first and on any given night, can be the toughest team to play against with their seasoned veteran puck control game.
The St Louis Blues have to be the surprise of the group. They fired their coach David Payne in the first month of the season and replaced him with veteran bench boss, Ken Hitchcock. Since the coaching change, the Blues are 19-5-5 and have won 4 straight games helping them to jump into first place in the division. Goaltender Jaro Halak defeated his old team last night as the Blues took a 3-0 victory from the Montreal Canadiens. The last time the Blues advanced to the promise land was in 2009, the only time they’ve done so in the past 6. Amazingly prior to that, the Blues had gone to the playoffs 25 years in a row, never getting past the third round.
The Nashville Predators are also a well coached team. In fact, they’re coach Barry Trotz who was hired in 1998-99 is the league’s longest standing bench general. Although it may seem like a surprise to you that the Preds are in 6th in the conference, it certainly isn’t to them. Nashville has been to the post season in 6 of the last 7 seasons and only Detroit has had more appearances than the Preds. Mind you, the Red Wings have made the playoffs every year since 1989-90 and have won 4 championships over the same stretch. With 2 straight wins and 6 of their last 10, the Preds won’t make it easy on anyone wishing to get in their way.
Today I will not mention the 5th and final Central Division team. I’ve decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
If the season ended today, St. Louis would face Minnesota, Nashville would visit San Jose and Chicago and Detroit would face off again in one of the longest standing rivalries in history.
So with about 40 games each to go before the end of the season it will be interesting to see how these 4 teams decipher who will end up on top and where all the chips will fall to see who plays who. In the mean time, all 4 Teams play Thursday and on Saturday, However, the Saturday game to watch will be when those Hawks try to avenge their last loss when they host the Wings as both clubs try and push the other out of the race. Should be a dandy!