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Central Intelligence: The Final Push

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The Dallas Stars enter the homestretch of the season, and all of their Central Division buddies are pushing hard. Tonight begins a crucial back-to-back at the top of the division. The Wild and Avalanche are duking it out for the last spot in the playoffs. This time of year is awesome.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Central Division in the NHL has been a bloodbath all year and is showing no signs of letting up. There are injuries, back to backs, and key games between wildcard teams. It is only fitting that the Central would be decided in the last weeks of the season.

The only sure thing about playoff positioning? There will be five Central Division teams represented in the playoffs (again).

The drama. The pageantry. The heart attacks. This is fun.

Winnipeg Jets

Record: 27-35-5 59 points

Playoff Position: No

The only other sure thing in this division: the Jets will bring up the rear. They wisely punted at the trade deadline and got some decent value for Andrew Ladd.

The season has been over in Winnipeg for months, but this was a better team than their record indicated through January. The Jets signed Dustin Byfuglien, and they have a decent core of players for next season. They will need to solve their issues in goal, but Winnipeg has a bright five-year outlook.

This is a perfect example of a team that accidentally tanked.

Minnesota Wild

Record: 31-27-10 72 points

Playoff Position: No, but almost

My mom used to always say, "Almost doesn't count except in horseshoes and hand grenades". How true is that? The good news for the Wild is they have time to turn that "almost" into a "second wildcard".

Minnesota and Colorado squared off last week, with the Wild winning that contest 6-3 in St. Paul. The two with face each other again on March 26th. There will be a playoff spot on the line in that game to be sure. But this time, the two will meet in Denver.

The Wild are 5-5-0 in their last ten games. Not exactly the sort of streak that clinches a playoff spot, but luckily the team they're chasing has left the door open.

Colorado Avalanche

Record: 35-30-4 74 points

Playoff Position: Second Wildcard

The real season-ending drama in the Central is between the Avs and the Wild for the right to extend their season. Minnesota has a game in hand, but the Avalanche would likely own the tiebreaker in wins. The stage is set, the pieces are moving.

The real concerning aspect is that neither team seems to want to seize control of the situation. Both teams are playing basically 0.500 hockey. Playoff position is the Avs' to lose. A huge win against the Ducks on Wednesday is a good start to the stretch run.

Colorado is entering an easy stint of the schedule, but the last eight games are brutal. Minnesota, at Nashville, at St. Louis, Washington, St. Louis, at Nashville, at Dallas, Anaheim. That is just about as brutal as it gets. The Avs need to stockpile points while they still can.

Nashville Predators

Record: 34-21-13 81 points

Playoff Position: First Wildcard

The Predators have lost a league leading 13 games in overtime. Thirteen. If a few of those contests had gone differently, the Preds would be nipping at the heels of the St. Louis Blues (and still might).

Nashville hasn't lost a game in regulation in their last fourteen contests. They are charging the top three in a hurry. The Preds will have some tough games to close out the year, but the head to head contests against the teams they are chasing will give them a chance to make up more ground on the leaders.

If they keep this up, true upheaval in the division may be just around the corner.

St. Louis Blues

Record: 39-20-9 87 points

Playoff Position: Third in the Central

St. Louis has won four games in a row, and they host the Ducks tonight. The game on Wednesday against the Blackhawks was a physical game that felt a lot like a playoff tilt.

It was hard to watch the game and not feel like both the Blackhawks and the Blues are hitting their stride at the right time of the year. The Stars injury situation is coming at a bad time.

The Blues are defending, scoring opportunistically, and getting great goaltending. A division loaded schedule to go with the Ducks and Capitals is a tough close to the regular season. But if it conditions the Blues to win tough games late in the year maybe it is the best thing that could have happened to them?

Jake Allen has the ability to carry a team when he gets hot, if he can avoid a late season injury he makes the Blues even more dangerous.

(Dallas Stars: 40-20-8 88 Points)

You know these guys.

Chicago Blackhawks

Record: 41-21-6 88 points

Playoff Position: First in the Central

The Stars and Hawks are tied in points, but Chicago has the tiebreaker in wins. Dallas and Chicago face each other two more times. To say the least, these are going to be two huge games for both teams.

Chicago has loaded up the roster for the playoffs. Andrew Ladd highlights the additions and he has already contributed offensively. Corey Crawford seems to be stopping everything and the defense looks more organized every night.

The last ten games, Chicago has stumbled a bit going 5-3-2. The adjustment period is not always straight forward, but the St. Louis game made it clear that the Hawks will be fine.

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The Stars are in a tough spot with injuries, but sometimes trials like this bring a team together. Injuries will force some guys to step up. A north and south game will be required of the team, along with disciplined defending. Falling into a wildcard spot is not out of the question, but the goal is to win the division. Everything is in front of the Stars, all that's left is to see if they can actually do it.