Chicago, IL — For races to be exciting and compelling to watch, whether it be a horse race, auto race, dog race or NHL race it must be competitive. That is exactly what is shaping up in the NHL’s best division this year the Western Conferences’ Central Division.
This year for the first time since 2008-09 season this division will probably have 4 out of its 5 teams going to the playoff in the Western Conference. This division which the Chicago Blackhawks call home is also home to the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. All of which will probably make the playoffs. The only question will be the seeding of these teams.
The lone team missing out will be the Columbus Blue Jackets who have many issues to address in the off-season. They thought they were addressing issues when they traded for big contract center Jeff Carter and defensemen James Wisniewski but with injuries plaguing this team their bid for a playoff run will have to wait another year.
This leaves the division for the four remaining teams to battle it out for. There is only three points that separate division leading Detroit from fourth place Chicago. This shows how tight this division will be and it will be up in the air til the end. All four will make the playoff with most likely San Jose and Vancouver going as divisional leaders of the Pacific and Northwest respectively.
So exactly how does our Blackhawks look to be faring against their divisional enemies you ask? Well lets take a look shall we. All of the teams have winning records at home, which is not too surprising. It is the road where all of the teams except Nashville have struggled a bit. All of the teams have a + differential which also is not too surprising.
Chicago & Nashville are the only teams at this point that have winning records both at home and on the road. This you would think bodes well for the Hawks but they also have the most road games ahead as well. That being the case they probably will need to do much better on the road than they have if they want to keep pace with the other teams.
The way the scheduling is done now potentially 30 points can be gotten against your division if you win all your games. The rest of the Western conference can contribute 40 points to your total if you win all of them which of course is unlikely in either scenario
Detroit Redwings are the division leaders coming into the All Star break with 67 points of which 53 points were achieved from Western Conference opponents (26-12-1). They also hold the most wins at 33 in the league which makes them the biggest threat in the West. Interestingly the Wings like the Blackhawks have had the least success against the Northwest division and have identical records of 7-5-1 against those teams. Versus the Central (9-5) and Pacific (10-2) .
The Wings only have 11 road games left which gives them a huge home ice advantage where to this point they are 20-2-1. They play Eastern Conference teams 7 times. The remaining 25 will be against the West of which 10 games will be against the Central division so potentially 20 points are at stake here. That’s the good news the bad is 3 of those games are against lowly Columbus. There is probably 4-6 points to Detroit right off the bat as they are currently 2-1 Detroit in the series.
Ok I know you want to know there are three games left against the Blackhawks two of which will be at the Joe in Detroit and they are ahead in the series 2-1. The Hawks have squandered home ice against the Wings so now they have to make up on the road against them. The Wings will only face the Blues once and the Preds twice til the end of the year.
Detroit has no glaring weaknesses. Their goaltending is among the best in the league, lead by All Star goalie Jimmy Howard. Their defense is solid and their offense is dangerous. The Hawks will have to be much better in the second half if they are to overtake Detroit as divisional leaders or hope that Detroit falls apart either from injuries or exhaustion.
St. Louis Blues – they are currently sitting second in the division with 65 points of which 50 points have come from Western Conf opponents. The amazing thing though is they are only .500 against their own central division rivals at 5-5-2. Like the Blackhawks most of their games will be on the road with 20 games being played at various arenas.
Also of note is 12 of their final 20 games will be against the Central teams which is 24 points potentially. They still have to face the Hawks four times. Three of these encounters will be at the United Center so this does not bode too well for the Blues. They must also face the Preds three times with two being held in Nashville. They will however only have to play Detroit once at home.
The key to getting past St. Louis is to score early and often. You don’t want to get behind this team as they rank first in the league in GAG. They have a lock down defensive style of play and an outstanding goalie in Elliott. Elliott is leading in GAA% and is second in the NHL in SV%. Getting anything past him will not be easy. Their weakness is their lack of scoring power and an abysmal power play. If you can get ahead on this team and rack up goals they probably will have a hard time catching up.
Nashville Predators – are right above the Hawks in the Central with the same amount of points 64 but by virtue of one more game won are ahead of the Hawks. Fifty of their points have come from the Western Conference. So which division have they struggled against? The Pacific where they have their only losing record at 5-6. They have 11 games left against these opponents but only 4 of these will be on the road.
The Blackhawks will face them three more time two of which will be in Nashville and hold the series lead at 2-1. The Blackhawks need to improve against this team if they are to surpass them. Like Detroit they do not have any glaring weaknesses and play a defensive style of game that baffles and confounds the Hawks.
The Predators are coming in off of an incredible 10 game streak of 9-1 when they beat the Avalanche, Blue Jackets and yes our Blackhawks twice. Nashville does have a hard schedule ahead especially in February where they play all playoff caliber teams except the Carolina Hurricanes. Like the Blues if you can get ahead early on this team they probably do not have enough fire power to catch up.
I see this race being very close and could be decided in the last week of the season when the Blackhawks face the Detroit Red Wings in Detroit during the last game of the regular season. The Blackhawks have a heavy road schedule in February which will probably determine how they end up in the Central. So how do I think the Central will end?
1) Detroit Red Wings
2) Chicago Blackhawks
3) Nashville Predators
4) St. Louis Blues
5) Columbus Blue Jackets
my rationale – I don’t think the Hawks can catch Detroit based on their schedule being so road oriented it will be a tall order. Why I think they will catch both the Blues and the Predators is because the Blues have a lot of road games left and have not done particularly well on the road. Nashville is the one I’m not sure of in fact the Hawks and Preds could flip-flop positions. I just think that the Predators will not have enough fire power to keep pace with the Shark , Canucks ect.
Should be a fun intense race for all the teams. None of them can afford any mistakes coming down the stretch the slightest of stumbling could cost the race.