The NHL Central Division has been one of the toughest in hockey over the last few seasons. Three of its teams – the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and Nashville Predators – have been to the playoffs each of the last three seasons and they were joined last season by the St. Louis Blues.
Among people who don’t live in Chicago, expectations heading into this season were that the Central would be tight again. It might very well have turned out that way, had the Blackhawks not found a way to resemble some sort of user-created All-Star team from a video-game fever dream. Throw in a rash of injuries to the other division powers and a late surge by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and suddenly figuring out who else is going to emerge from the Central after Chicago clinches the title in another week or two becomes nearly impossible.
Here’s a look at how things stand now that each team in the division has played 24 games.
NHL CENTRAL DIVISION: AT THE HALFWAY POINT
21-1-3 (45 points)
The best start to a season in NHL history has the Blackhawks in the driver’s seat not just for the Central, but for the NHL. They’ve had stellar goaltending from both Corey Crawford (11-1-3, 1.81 GAA, .930 SV%) and Ray Emery (10-0-0, 2.05, .924), giving the team the best goals-against average (1.96) in the league. Patrick Kane (12G-15A) is averaging better than a point per game, and Jonathan Toews (11G-11A) and Marian Hossa (10G-9A) aren’t far behind that pace.
The Hawks may have lost their first regulation game of the season this past week, but they’ve already almost clinched a playoff spot and are near-locks for the Division title. They’ll be without the services of Patrick Sharp (5G-13A) for the next few weeks due to injury, but this team is playing excellent hockey and will be hard to stop anytime before the playoffs arrive.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
13-9-2 (28 points)
The Blues got off to a 6-1-0 start before dropping like a lead balloon, losing five in a row and four straight at home. They haven’t quite found their footing, but they have managed to get most of the fires under control.
Goaltending was the Blues’ strength last season but it’s been an Achilles heel this year. Jaroslav Halak (5-2-1, 2.31, .884) got off to a great start before faltering and then being injured. Brian Elliott (3-6-1, 3.65, .851) has snapped back hard from last year’s success, and AHL call-up Jake Allen (5-1-0, 2.73, .891) has a better win-loss record than either of his teammates but still sports a shaky save percentage. Offense has been a constant, though. They’re averaging three goals per game and 11 of their players have at least 10 points, led by Chris Stewart (9G-12A), David Perron (8G-11A), and Kevin Shattenkirk (2G-17A).
DETROIT RED WINGS
12-9-4 (28 points)
Losing Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement was obviously a blow to the Red Wings, but the longer shadow this season has been cast by injuries. They have hampered this year’s Red Wings since before the season even began. Not only has that led to more “Walking Dead” jokes at their expense than any other team in the Western Conference, but it’s had an impact on their bottom line. Their defense is giving up a highly uncharacteristic 2.52 goals per game, which in turn has given starting goalie Jimmy Howard (10-7-3, 2.50, .915) a rough ride.
The Red Wings’ offense is still as capable as ever of producing points, though. First-year captain Henrik Zetterberg (6G-20A) and puck magician Pavel Datsyuk (8G-16A) are among the league’s top 30 scorers, and Swiss import Damien Brunner (10G-8A) has been consistent in his first NHL season.
10-9-6 (26 points)
Pekka Rinne (9-8-5, 2.09, .920) has been the team’s backbone as expected, posting an NHL-best four shutouts, but his win-loss record has suffered behind a team that’s been terribly inconsistent on offense and occasionally bad on defense as well. Shea Weber (3G-10A) is beginning to find his form again after starting slow. The fact that Captain Weber tied for second on the team in points says more about struggling forwards like Martin Erat (3G-10A) and David Legwand (5G-4A) than the worthiness of his efforts.
Injuries have begun to take a toll lately. Patric Hornqvist (3G-5A), who missed three weeks earlier in the season, is out again. The penalty kill has suffered without the presence of Hal Gill, dropping to 26th in the league. And Colin Wilson (7G-12A) will miss an as-yet-undetermined number of games after leaving last night’s contest with Minnesota. Right now there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for the Preds, and advance scouting doesn’t show much reason to believe one will appear over the next 23 games without a lot of luck.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
9-12-4 (22 points)
Just two weeks ago, with only 12 points from 18 games and a 5-11-2 record, the Blue Jackets were looking like the same old terrible team everyone always expects them to be. But after a four-game win streak they’re suddenly within striking distance of the rest of the NHL Central Division.
Sergei Bobrovsky (7-6-3, 2.30, .919) has proven to be a good acquisition for the Jackets, but Steve Mason (2-6-1, 3.08, .897) has been like a dragging anchor with his continued struggles. The team’s leading scorer is 38-year-old Vinny Prospal (9G-5A), and its leading assist man Fedor Tyutin (1G-12A). In all, 18 different Blue Jackets players have scored for a team that looks an awful lot like the Nashville Predators of yore on the eve of their impending move to the Eastern Conference. They’re still a long shot for the playoffs, but they look a lot better than they have in recent years.