Central Intelligence: Dog Days of February
The Stars are hot, and the Wild are not. How are things in the Central Division?
The Central Division is still fielding five playoff teams (the maximum allowed under current playoff structure from any one division). In the two and a half seasons since the playoffs were rebuilt, the Pacific Division has not sent a single wildcard team to the playoffs. I understand, that is a massive and irrefutable sample size, but the point remains: MDK Division.
That said, the dominance of the division has largely regressed, as teams like the Ducks have climbed out of their casket. As soon as the Pacific looks like it is waking up to take a wildcard spot, the Coyotes lose four consecutive games. Go figure.
For all of Dallas' struggles since 2016 began, the team hasn't lost a lot of ground to the field. Of course, the Blackhawks caught the Stars, but the six points lead over third place St. Louis hasn't changed materially in several weeks. A big part of that has been success against the division - with the two points over the Blackhawks, the Stars now have surpassed their point total against the division with 11 games left in the queue. The respective records are 12-5-1 this year to 8-14-7 last season.
The Stars were being kicked around by a mid-season slump and putrid special teams, but it looks like every one of their division rivals is dealing with demons of their own. Including, suddenly.....
Record: 36-18-4 76 points
Playoff Position: First in the Central
The Hawks are 5-5-0 in their last ten games after having been on a 70 percent win clip for the past two months. Still, at some point, they aren't hot any more, they are just good. And the Blackhawks look good.
Last weekend they crushed the Stars 5-1 getting short handed goals and great goaltending. Corey Crawford is the best player on this team right now, and it isn't close. The rest of the division was just praying he comes crashing back to earth before April/May, and in Thursday's loss to the Stars at least, that occurred just a bit. It seems that much more than in previous season, as Crawford goes, so go the Hawks
Dallas has a couple of games in hand over the champs but unless they can take advantage of the remaining two head-to-head matchups, catching them will be a chore. Not impossible, just a chore.
St. Louis Blues
Record: 30-17-9 69 points
Playoff Position: Third in the Central
The Blues look like they are on cruise control, steadily grinding out victories and taking their fair share of losses and pity points. But if you are a fan of the Blues, the number of those losses absorbed in overtime (eight) has to be some sort of comfort. The Blues are 11 points clear of the Predators, and within shouting distance of the Stars (six points behind Dallas).
Next week, the Stars will play in Nashville on Monday and St. Louis on Tuesday. This has been mentioned before, but it is worth repeating: Dallas does not play St. Louis in a game this year that is not a part of a back-to-back. Kind of inconvenient when said team is nipping at the heels of the Stars.
If the season ended today, the Blues would play the Stars in the first round of Lord Stanley's tournament. That would be a bloodbath of a series.
Record: 28-25-4 60 points
Playoff Position: First Wildcard
The Stars finally beat the Avalanche 4-3 last week, at the Pepsi Center no less. This was an encouraging exorcism given the house of horrors Denver has been for the Stars, even if it wasn't against their usual nemesis in Semyon Varlamov.
Colorado skidded to a three-game losing streak (surrounding the loss to Dallas), and they are 5-4-1 in their last ten games. The Avs play a game that requires some luck and good goaltending. With the skill surrounding Varlamov, it is as easy to envision this team missing the playoffs as it is to envision them winning a round or two.
Record: 25-20-8 58 points
Playoff Position: Second Wildcard
The Predators have to be the most topsy-turvy team in the Central. They have spent time in the top 3, the bottom 2, and everywhere in between.
Aside from a flyer against the Flyers (6-3) last week, the team has been fairly consistent. They have started to find some scoring touch and Ryan Johansen appears to be assimilating into the offense. They will still have to train him to defend, but with Josi and Weber playing safety, his mistakes can be forgiven for the offensive spark he has provided.
The question is can they hang on despite iffy goaltending. They are 6-4-0 in their last 10 but were passed by Colorado (though they do have three games in hand on the Avs).
No one will confuse the Preds scoring with the Stars, but there aren't many teams better built for the playoffs than this one. They just have to get there first.
Record: 23-21-10 56 points
Playoff Position: No sir
Two stats are all you need to see about the Wild: (1) 1-7-2 in their last ten games; and (2) they are on a seven-game losing streak.
They can't get a stop, they can't score a goal. They can win at home, they can't win on the road. They can't win in overtime and they certainly can't win in regulation. It isn't helping matters that Jonas Brodin, Mikko Koivu, and Jared Spurgeon are all injured in some capacity or the other. Brodin is expected to miss some serious time, with Koivu and Spurgeon on more of a day-to-day basis.
If you think the Stars are slumping, just look at the tailspin in Minny. This are going downhill quickly and if they don't recover soon, they could miss the tournament entirely.
Record: 24-27-3 51 points
Playoff Position: Not really, no.
Well, the Jets were able to sign Dustin Byfuglien long term deal. That transaction was for five-years with an annual cap hit of $7.6 million. Seems like a reasonable compromise.
The long term signing of Byfuglien will generate more noise about what the Jets have in store at the trade deadline. What will they do with Andrew Ladd? Is Jacob Trouba available? Tyler Myers? How many of the blue line guys just became available? Only time will tell.
Those are the questions because without some sort of miracle, the Jets aren't making the playoffs this year. They're five points off the pace but 14th in the conference.