Central Intelligence: The Final Chapter
With just over one week left in the 2015-16 NHL Regular season, we take one final look at the Central Division and talk about the futures of its inhabitants.
The MDK Division has been a talking point all year. The brutal competition and arms race made for some compelling headlines. Drama ran amok. Uncertainty and a 5-1 lashing waited around every corner.
As the regular season winds down, a lot of those questions have been answered. The drama has reached a plateau, or has it?
The names of the teams in the playoffs from the Western Conference, and specifically the Central Division, are pretty much tied up. As the old saying goes, "She ain't singin', but the mic is on and she is warming up". Actually, that isn't an old saying. It is just a version of it.
The intrigue isn't really who is going to make the playoffs, rather, where they will be positioned. Let's dive in.
Record: 31-39-7 69 points
Playoff Position: No
The Jets have limped to the finish line, and have really put themselves in a position to make a run at last place in the league. Like many of their Canadian brethren, 69 points are "within" two points of the worst record in hockey. The Jets haven't had to put too much effort into tanking since the trade deadline.
Improving their chances at Auston Matthews is about the only thing left to play for this season. The future is bright in Winnipeg in the form of Kyle Connor, but the goaltending issues and elite level forward are still conspicuously missing. I would take Blake Wheeler or Mark Scheifele on my team any day.
Record: 39-34-4 82 points
Playoff Position: No
Ten days ago, the Avs were locked in mortal combat with the Minnesota Wild for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Then, the wheels fell off in the most spectacular fashion.
Injuries depleted the roster, and the losses mounted. The Maroon and Blue boys from Mile High just simply could not overcome their advanced metrics shortcomings. Everything was coming down to a game last weekend where Minny came to The Can. The teams were close, and if Colorado could beat the Wild in regulation their playoff hopes were still very much alive.
They got blown out 4-0 in front of their home crowd.
It's hard to put a finger on a reason for the collapse by the Avs. While I am sure Nathan MacKinnon's injury has had something to do with it, that isn't the only reason. It seems the Avs finally had to answer the bell for their style of play. It's better to be lucky than good, but being lucky instead of good is not advisable.
Record: 38-29-11 87 points
Playoff Position: Second Wildcard
As noted above, the Wild took care of business and railroaded their only competition for the last wildcard spot. Minnesota has not clinched a postseason berth, and likely won't until late next week, but this race is all over but the crying.
Playing 7-2-1 hockey down the stretch has a way of killing drama when someone is chasing you. Now the Wild will set their goals a bit higher (maybe). They are only 4 points behind a suddenly stumbling Nashville squad for the first wildcard spot. The lucky winner of that race will likely head over to the Pacific Division, with a first round matchup with either Los Angeles or Anaheim.
The Wild have played pretty good hockey for a month now, and have responded well after they fired their coach, Mike Yeo. They are playing well headed into the playoffs. All they need to do now is tie a bow on their spot, and get ready for round one against a division champ.
Record: 39-26-13 91 points
Playoff Position: First Wildcard
A week ago this was the hottest team in hockey. And to some degree, the Preds still are. Looking from a macro-level, they still have an impressive record since the All Star break. A micro-level examination shows a team on a miniature 3-game slide.
To be fair, they lost a 4-3 affair against the Avalanche and a "closer than the score would indicate" 5-2 decision in Dallas. Nashville is who they am, and doldrums are a part of the game. If the season ended today, Nashville would line up against the Kings. That would have the potential of being a bloody but boring series. Just the way the Kings like it.
Record: 44-26-7 95 points
Playoff Position: Third in the Central
Chicago is dealing with a rash of injuries and suspensions to key cogs in their wheel. Duncan Keith is out for however long the NHL decides, and Corey Crawford is trying to come back from a head related injury and vertigo. He could be back this weekend, or he could miss the first round. It is really hard to say with those kinds of injuries.
What isn't hard to say is that the Hawks aren't the same team without Crawford behind them. Nashville's 3-game skid has allowed the Hawks some time to regroup without falling to a wildcard spot, and for that, they should thank their lucky stars. Pun sort of intended, though I am not sure what it means.
In my opinion, this team will either (1) get to the Western Conference finals, or (2) get blown out 2011 Los Angeles Lakers' style signaling a (temporary) end of an era. The Hawks typically go for a fun little March tailspin then raise the Cup later on, but this one feels different. Take all of that with a metric tonne of salt.
St. Louis Blues
Record: 46-22-9 101 points
Playoff Position: Second in the Central
The hottest team in hockey is the St. Louis Blues. They have won their last five games and are 8-2-0 in their last ten. They will need to have one more point than the Stars to take over the Central Division, because Dallas has a firm grip on the ROW (Regulation and Overtime Wins) tiebreaker.
However, the Blues remaining schedule is easier than the Stars'. Well, slightly. The Stars have a brutal back to back in Los Angeles and Anaheim. The Blues will close the regular season against the Capitals, who will probably trot out an AHL team. The schedule could be construed as a wash between Dallas and St. Louis, depending on how you feel about Boston and Chicago on the road.
Dallas has a two point edge and the ROW tiebreak on the Blues for the Central crown, but the Blues have a game in hand (played tonight against Boston). The table is set, but everyone will need to wait and see their seat assignments. It should be an interesting finish to the first season, but the second season is when the fun really begins.