NHL: The Tough Central Division and Who Will Win It

PJ SapienzaContributor IIIJanuary 18, 2012

NHL: The Tough Central Division and Who Will Win It

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    The NHL's Western Conference is very tough this year. The top 12 teams are only separated by 13 points. Even more brutal than that is the Central Division. 

    The Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators each occupy a top-eight playoff spot, and as of now are separated by only five points.

    Going into tonight’s matchups, Detroit leads the division and conference with 61 points.  By the time they play again the Red Wings could drop to fifth in the conference. It is that close.

    Whatever team emerges from the divisional fight will be battle tested. Forget worrying about a long losing streak, losing one game will bounce a team down the seedings.

    There are two other divisions with decent battles going on, and the only division close to the Central is the Pacific, where there is an eight-point spread among the top four. Pacific-leading San Jose would only place fourth in the Central, and just two of the Pacific division's other four teams currently hold a playoff spot.  So not only is the Central the closest race, it is also the toughest—as each of these four teams are very good.

    So, who will win the division, and be able clinch that top seed in the hopes of making a long playoff run?

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    It is not fair to talk of the Central and not include the Blue Jackets. As good as the top four teams in the division are, the Central is also home to the worst team in the league.

    Columbus is dead last in the division, conference and league. They have already fired one coach, and one has to think that General Manager Scott Howson can’t be too far behind. 

    A promising and busy off-season added and re-signed several key players including Jeff Carter, RJ Umberger, Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski, but an 0-8 start wrecked their chances.

    Despite being the bottom feeders, they do seem to play their division foes tough. In 12 games against division rivals they have two wins—with five of their losses in one goal games. While two wins is not impressive, the team only has 13 wins. The close losses show that they do show up to play against their rivals. 

Nashville Predators

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    The Predators are hoping to continue to grow, and build on last season’s success. They got their first playoff series win last season when the beat Anaheim in six games, and though they would go on to lose to Vancouver in the second round, that first playoff series victory was big for the franchise.

    Nashville has one of the top goalies in the league in Pekka Rinne. He started the season on a tear with three shutouts in his first 12 games, then fell off in December—which has lead to his goals against average rise to 2.50. He seems to be back on track though, with a five game win streak and a 1.60 GAA over that time.

    The team plays in many close games, and are only +2 in goals on the season. As the year goes on and Rinne regains his normal stellar form that goal differential should improve.

    One area that the team struggles with is the lack of at least one true scoring threat—they do not have anyone in the top 50 in goals or points.  While they do have five players with double digit goals, Nashville doesn't have one particular player that other teams need to focus on shutting down. 

    There is something to be said about the ability spread the scoring around, but a team still needs to have go-to guys. The Predators' star defender, Shea Weber, is the leading scorer.

    Still, Nashville has one of the best power plays in the league. Over 26 percent of their goals come on the power play—that is far above the other teams in the division. On the down side, however, they are one of the weakest even-strength teams. Considering the majority of the game is played at even-strength, this is an area of concern for the team and they will need to improve.

    Speaking of Weber, he is one of the better defenders in the league—and leads a decent defensive unit. Overall, the team is young—averaging 26.7 years—and a lot of that youth is on the defense. As they learn and gain more experience this unit should improve.

    The Predators should be in for the playoffs, but are not quite ready to challenge for the division yet. With all the youth on the team it remains to be seen how and if they can handle the pressure, as the season winds down and playoff spots start to disappear.

St Louis Blues

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    The St. Louis Blues have spent the last several years out of the playoff picture—they have only one post season appearance in the past six years. That will be changing this year.

    The youth movement the organization has focused on over the past several years is finally paying off.  Players like TJ Oshie, David Backes and Alex Pietrangelo are really coming into their own, and have helped lead this team.

    Mixing in with that youth is the veteran play of Jason Arnott, who seems to be rejuvenated playing with his new team.  He already has 12 goals and 24 points, when he only had 17 and 31 all of last season.

    The team has been very strong on defense and are led by two terrific goaltenders, Jaroslav Halek and Brian Elliott. They are tied for the league lead in goals against with a 1.98, and also lead in shutouts, with eight.

    The Blues' penalty kill is middle of the road, but their power play is anemic, as they rank in the bottom three in the league. But they are stellar at home and own the second best home record in the league.

    Still, the Alex Steen injury hurts them, and with him still suffering from his concussion it is not known when he will return. 

    While both goalies are playing great, as the playoffs get closer most teams have found going with one is the best option.  That decision needs to be made before the end of the season.

    How the team handles the goalie situation and what affect it has on the locker room will be interesting to watch. If the lead goalie struggles, will the backup be able to gather himself up from the disappointment of the demotion to still help the team?

    The team is young but talented—as long as the strong goaltending play continues they will be in the mix most of the season.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Blackhawks have rebounded from last year’s mediocre post-Cup winning season. They seem to have shaken off last season’s funk and have come out swinging this year.

    Chicago is a high scoring team, and they rank in the top five in goals per game. Defensively they are a middle of the pack team. 

    They have three major scoring threats in Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp.  Sharp and Toews both are over 20 goals already. Normally Patrick Kane would be in the scoring mix, but he is suffering through a slump with only one goal in 13 games. The Blackhawks have enough scoring power, though, that they have hardly noticed.

    Recent call-up Andrew Shaw has really impressed, and looks to give the team yet another scoring threat. The 20-year-old, brought in to replace LW Daniel Carcillo, has four goals in his first seven games. As long as it just isn’t beginners luck it looks like he will remain with the team and add some depth.

    Goaltending is a major area of concern for the Blackhawks. Corey Crawford and his backup Ray Emery have been average at best. In a division with such standout goalies among the other contenders, Chicago has by far had the worst production. For as many goals as they have scored, they are only +17 on the season.

    So far their offense has been able to overcome, but will they be able to continue to hold them up? 

Detroit Red Wings

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    Detroit is top-five in the NHL in goals for and against. They possess some of the league’s top players, including Nick Lidstrom—at 41, he is still among the best defenders in the league.  Pavel Datsyuk is the best two way player in the league, and is the favorite to claim his fourth Selke award.  He is also being mentioned as a possible Hart trophy candidate.

    Several Red Wings players are having career years. Detroit needs these players to maintain their great starts through the rest of the season. One of those players having a career year is goaltender Jimmy Howard. He leads the league in wins and is among the leaders in shutouts and goals against average. He is hoping to become the first Red Wing in almost 60 years to win the Vezina.

    The one knock against Detroit is their road record.  While they only have two losses at home and none since November, they are 12-13 away from home this year.  Looking deeper into those stats though shows that backup goalie Ty Conklin has five of those losses. 

    While that record still does not make them a dominant road team, they do survive, and one has to assume that come playoff time it will be all Howard, who will have better success.

    The Red Wings will not have anyone lead the league in goals, but they get plenty of scoring up and down all four lines.  If Howard can keep up his magical season, Detroit will be tough to beat.

And the Winner Is.......

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    Final Predictions

    1 Detroit  114

    2 St Louis  109

    3 Chicago  101

    4 Nashville  98

     

    All four teams will make the playoffs, but the Red Wings will win the division.

    Chicago’s goaltending will eventually haunt them and allow Detroit and St. Louis to pull away a little.  Nashville just doesn’t have enough scoring punch to catch the leaders, but will still have a good season.

    Detroit has a better team top to bottom, and more experience which will help them win the Central.  This won't be a runaway win, however, as St. Louis will push them into the final week. But the Red Wings will take the division, and battle Vancouver for the top seed for the all-important reward of home ice in the playoffs.