Central Intelligence: Overtaken

In the last two weeks, the Chicago Blackhawks overtook the Dallas Stars for first place in the Central Division. As the Stars slump, what has the rest of the division done with the opportunity?

The Dallas Stars have gone 3-6-1 in their last ten games. This slide saw the team win three games in the month of January, and generally lose touch with the style of play that had the team cruising early in the season. There is a boat load of blame to go around: penalty killing, power play, goaltending, and poor execution are all ingredients in this especially nasty cake.

While the Stars were toiling in below 0.500 hockey, the rest of the division (with a couple of exceptions) took advantage of the stumble at the top of the standings.

The National Hockey League is quite unforgiving. Start the season slow? You will never catch up because of 3 point games. Start the season fast? It's irrelevant because your lead can disappear in a heartbeat.

Dallas found themselves in the former position last year, and the latter position this year. As the Central Division went scrambling over themselves trying to catch the Stars during their slump, did they make up any ground?

Winnipeg Jets

Record: 22-24-3, 47 Points

Playoff Position: No

The rumor mill has it that the Jets have moved on from attempting to re-sign Andrew Ladd long term, and are more concerned with taking care of Dustin Byfuglien. These are just rumors, and you never know who is the puppet master behind stories like this. Was it an intentional leak by the team or an agent? Does it even matter? Did Neil Armstrong land on the moon? If so, how was the flag blowing in a windless place? These are all important questions.

On the ice, the Jets have not improved their standing in the way of the bottom line: points. The Jets are 4-5-1 over their last 10 games, not good enough to catch anyone.

However, examining the last 2 weeks of play in Winnipeg, this team is suffering from the same disease as the Dallas Stars. Good even strength play and a tire fire on special teams.

Minnesota Wild

Record: 23-17-9, 55 Points

Playoff Position: No

Minnesota is struggling. The Wild have won three games in January (like Dallas), and have free-fallen from third in the Central to "outside looking in".

Devan Dubnyk has responded to his slow start to the season, and in the last two weeks the Wild goalies have a save percentage of 0.928. The problem in Minny has not been with the defense, it has been the complete lethargy on the offensive end.

The Wild seem to have decided they are going to sit back and eat pressure like a stick of butter, hoping they don't gain weight. The team's Corsi is 49.1 percent, and the team is shooting 4.7 percent. The offense just is not there. When the team scores eight goals in six games, you know it's tough treading. They are far from eliminated, but the offensive woes will need to be solved.

Nashville Predators

Record: 24-18-8, 56 Points

Playoff Position: Second Wildcard

The Predators are the same team they have been all season: meh. They are 5-4-1 in their last ten, their Corsi in the last two weeks is 49.7 percent, and the team's PDO is 103.3 (read: fairly lucky). All of these stats point to a team that embodies the average of the National Hockey League.

Nashville is not terrible at anything, but part of their success of late can be attributed to a high shooting percentage (10.3 percent) and save percentage (0.930).

Ryan Johansen seems to have sparked the offense the way management envisioned, but they must be asking themselves two questions: (a) how long can the team continue to score on 10.3 percent of their shots on goal, and (b) is the improvement enough to actually make the team better?

The Preds have fallen in the standings since the Johansen trade, and are playing 0.500 hockey. The last 4 games show a team righting the ship, but is the success sustainable?

Colorado Avalanche

Record: 27-22-3, 57 Points

Playoff Position: First Wildcard

The Avalanche have been winning games since late in 2015, trying to recover from a horrible start to the season. They have succeeded in climbing all the way back into a playoff spot.

Climbs like that don't typically happen in the NHL, and they certainly don't ever happen so quickly.

Unfortunately for anyone rooting for the Avs, the underlying numbers say this team is fraudulent. A PDO of 101.7 (read: a little bit lucky) isn't too bad, but the possession numbers are not good. Colorado's CF% is 44.7 percent. They are getting absolutely killed in the possession game, but they are winning.

If you watched the Stars play the Avalanche last week, you saw the Stars put on a clinic of possession and you saw the Avs steal one they didn't deserve. The stats for that game are mind bending. Colorado had a PDO of 117.7 (read: so lucky you shouldn't be alive) and a CF% of 23.2 percent. The Avalanche won 3 to 1.

The Avs have purchased real estate inside the Stars' head.

St. Louis Blues

Record: 28-16-8, 64 Points

Playoff Position: Third in Central

The Blues have been in a tailspin just like the Stars for the last month. Dallas' fall from grace and St. Louis' subsequent demise probably saved Dallas from falling farther in the standings.

St. Louis is struggling right now. Despite the team's shortcomings over the last few weeks, the defensive commitment has never wavered. The Blues surrender very little in the way of offense, and the goaltending has been like a rock. It is amazing what two weeks of 0.949 save percentage can do for a team.

It is difficult to watch the Blues and figure out the origin of their struggles, but they have managed to tread water (like Dallas). The slump has put some space between them and the cruising Blackhawks, but it has far from eliminated them from contention to win the division.

When you are getting goaltending like that, all things are possible.

Chicago Blackhawks
Record: 33-16-4, 70 Points

Playoff Position: First in Central

Since the great winning streak began on 12/29/15, the Blackhawks have played 16 games and won 13 of them. During that time they caught and passed the Blues and Stars, and they haven't looked back.

Chicago has really jelled as a team in the last month, and there is tangible difference in this team today compared to two months ago. The player movement and understanding, the defensive commitment, and special teams have guided the team to the top of the toughest division in hockey.

The difference between the run of play for the Hawks and the Avs is... nothing.

Both are getting outgunned and mashed with shots, both are getting excellent goaltending, and both have scored some timely goals. It feels harsh to call it luck, but that is what it is. Chicago's CF% is 46.9 percent, almost as bad as the Avalanche. People are quick to point out that the Avs are "just getting lucky" but why not slap the same label on the Hawks?

The underlying numbers are disturbing if you are a Hawks' fan, and they give hope to their pursuers.