By Amanda DiPaolo
If the playoffs started today, the entire Central Division would have a playoff berth and the Nashville Predators would be the President’s Trophy recipients. Ok, it’s only week 3 of the NHL’s lengthy season. However, it is no secret that the Central Division is a tough one to complete in or against.
For an easy explanation, just look at the records between the Central Division and the rest of the Western Conference. Nashville has a 4-0-1 record against the West. Detroit has a 5-1-1 record. The Blues are 2-1-2. Columbus is 4-3-0. Finally, the Blackhawks have the worse record, 3-4-1.
Now examine how the Central Division has performed against the Eastern Conference. Only Nashville, Chicago and St. Louis have played games against their Eastern Conference foes, and none of them lost a game in regulation. Nashville lost in overtime against the elite Capitals and Penguins and won Sunday night against the Lightning. Chicago and St. Louis are each 2-0-0 against the East. Chicago has two wins against Buffalo while St. Louis beat the Penguins in overtime as well as the Flyers.
The Central Division also has 5 great starting goaltenders. Jimmy Howard, a Calder Trophy finalist last year, minds the net in Detroit. The Calder Trophy winner from 2009, Steve Mason, has returned to his winning form after having a tough sophomore season, in Columbus. Jaroslav Halak comes over to the Blues after taking Montreal to the Eastern Conference finals last year. Marty Turco has taken over for Antti Niemi, after Chicago decided to walk away from the arbitration award given to Niemi. And then there is Pekka Rinne in goal for Nashville, the most underrated goalie in the entire NHL. Evidence that the Central Division goalies are the best in the league? Marty Turco is the weak link.
How will the Central be won? It will come down to how the teams perform against each other. If we can count on these stats to continue and the Central Division will steamroll their opponents, they will need to beat each other to win the title of their own division and that coveted playoff home ice advantage.
One thing is for certain, with the strength of Nashville, St. Louis and Columbus growing around Chicago and Detroit, it is not entirely a done deal that the Red Wings or the Blackhawks will walk away with the division. From 2001-2009, the Detroit Red Wings won the division. Last year, it was the Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks. We have some real competition to win the Central Division this year. Where the competition lacks is between the Central Division and with the rest of the league.
What makes these teams so good?
Chicago – Chicago lost 10 regular roster members from last year’s Cup winning team. But the Blackhawks have been hanging in there. Marian Hossa is having a solid early season. Marty Turco is finding his groove in net. Let’s not forget that the Hawks also boast Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews on offense. The two highly touted forwards have not been on top of their game yet in this early season, but they will be.
Columbus – Early success for Columbus is somewhat of a surprise. The Blue Jackets didn’t do too much in the off season. They did pick up Ethan Moreau, but he got hurt and hasn’t done too much as a result. Nikita Filatov returned from Russia.
It helps that Columbus has faced some soft opponents. Surprisingly, San Jose hasn’t been playing very well. Minnesota and Anaheim didn’t get off to a great start either. But the Blue Jackets did beat the Balckhawks and they beat Chicago after they finally got on track after their first few games.
Detroit – The Red Wings got Juri Hudler back from the KHL and signed Mike Modano. Detroit said goodbye to Kirk Maltby and made room for Justin Abdelkader, a player who was a staple of the post season for Detroit for two years before earning a full time roster spot.
Nashville Predators – The Predators still have not lost in regulation. They are the only club to boast such a record. Nashville should boast. The Predators have shown that they are a team with incredible depth and when healthy the rest of the NHL should watch out.
Already having lost 24 man games and currently without Ryan Suter, Marcel Goc, and Matthew Lombardi in the lineup, Nashville keeps winning. They went 2-0-1 with starting goaltender Pekka Rinne out on the strong play of veterans like Steve Sullivan and outstanding rookie performance by backup Anders Lindback, playing his first season of hockey in North America.
St. Louis Blues – The Blues have only lost one game in regulation, losing to, division rivals, the Predators. St. Louis is young. The have a lot of talent up front and on the back end. While losing awesome veteran presence in Paul Kariya and Ketih Tkachuk, the Blues picked up Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens, after the Habs decided to stick with Carey Price in goal, despite Halak getting them to the Eastern Conference finals.
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