Just a mere five points separates the Central-leading St. Louis Blues and the third place Chicago Blackhawks; with just over two weeks remaining on the NHL schedule, every game is make or break. Sandwiched between St. Louis and Chicago are the Nashville Predators, who have seen a fall from grace over their last ten games. After lighting the hockey world on fire, can Nashville finish the job? Will Chicago make an improbable comeback to steal the crown or will St. Louis snatch it away with their bruising style of play?
Chicago Blackhawks (44-22-6, 94 pts)
Riding the hot glove hand of Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks have managed to stay in the thick of the division chase. After losing Patrick Kane at the end of February, it would have been easy to write the Hawks off and make this a two-horse race, but Chicago has finally hit their stride to the tune of a 7-2-1 record over their last ten games. With the resurgence of Patrick Sharp, and Coach Joel Quenneville’s ability to roll out four strong lines, the Hawks are already looking to be in playoff form.
While Nashville and St. Louis both have eight games remaining, Chicago has a chance to make up ground with ten games remaining. Of those ten remaining games, two are against St. Louis (Home/Away) and four are against teams currently in the playoff chase. The Hawks are fortunate that they face three teams with .500 or under .500 records over those games. The team travels to Philadelphia (29-29-16) tonight and then hosts Columbus (34-35-4) on March 27th.
Chicago faces two tough stretches on the remaining schedule. On March 29th, they travel to Winnipeg (38-24-12) and then head right back home to face the streaking Los Angeles Kings (36-23-14). After Vancouver (43-26-4) visits the UC on April 2nd, Chicago takes on the easiest opponent on any of the three teams’ schedule, the Buffalo Sabers (20-46-7).
The last stretch is where the team will really have to earn the division crown. On April 5th, St. Louis (46-21-7) is in town and two days later Minnesota (42-25-7) takes the ice. After two days off, the team heads to St. Louis for their last tilt with the Blues. The Hawks finish the season in Colorado (33-27-12) on April 11th.
Average Remaining Record: 37-28-9
Playoff Teams Remaining: 6
Nashville Predators (45-21-8, 98 pts)
After a torrid start to the season, Nashville has come back to Earth over their last ten games (4-5-1). Playing behind Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne, the Predators have remained in the heart of the division chase from the beginning; all indicators show that they should be in it until the end.
Nashville has eight games remaining on their schedule, five of which are against teams still in the playoffs. Tomorrow night they take on one of the top teams in the league, the Tampa Bay Lighting (46-21-8) in Tampa Bay.
The toughest stretch on the calendar takes place right after the Tampa Bay game, when Nashville takes on three playoff contenders. On March 28th they travel to Washington (39-21-10) to take on Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals. Right after that game, Calgary (40-27-6) comes to the Music City on March 29th, followed by Vancouver (43-26-1) on March 31st.
The NHL schedule was not kind to Nashville when it came to their travel plans for the remainder of their schedule. After finishing up a three-game home stand on April 4th against Dallas (35-28-10), the team travels to Colorado (33-27-12) on April 7th, back home for a tilt against Minnesota (42-25-7) on April 9th, and then finishing the season at Dallas on April 11th.
Average Remaining Schedule: 39-26-8
Playoff Teams Remaining: 5
St.Louis Blues (46-21-7, 99 pts)
The bullies of the Central, the St. Louis Blues, have pounced on the Predators’ recent skid, jumping out to the division lead. Going 6-2-2 in their last ten, the Blues have been getting a big boost from Alexander Steen (62 points) and Vladimir Tarasenko (70 points) throughout the entire year.
The Blues get the best chances of winning the division based on six of their last eight games being played at home, where they have complied a 24-9-2 record. Like Chicago, St. Louis plays six teams currently in the playoffs, with two of those games against the Hawks.
Starting on March 28th, St. Louis takes on Columbus (34-35-4) at home, followed by Vancouver (43-26-4) on March 30th, and Calgary (40-27-6) on April 2nd.
In between home stretches, St. Louis travels to Dallas (35-28-10) on April 3rd and then to Chicago (44-22-6) on April 5th. The Blues finish their season on a three-game home stand against Winnipeg (38-24-12) on April 7th, Chicago on April 9th, and then finishing with Minnesota (42-25-7) on April 11th.
Average Remaining Schedule: 40-26-7
Playoff Teams Remaining: 6
The fascinating part about the three teams’ remaining schedules is that each team plays on April 7th, 9th and 11th. If everything falls into place, the last three games of the year could be quite interesting.