NHL: Central Division Playoff Race Heating Upby Naftali Clinton April 24, 2021 0 comments
The NHL is in the latter stages of the regular season, and teams have made their choice of whether to go for the playoffs or stock up and try again next year.
When the NHL made the new divisional alignment prior to the 2020-21 season, the Central Division was in for a fight. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes were highlighted right away as potential division winners. The Florida Panthers had a resurgence and now sit ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Battling for the fourth playoff seed are the surging Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Blue Jackets Closing Out a Rough Season
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings are all but eliminated at this point in the campaign. The Blue Jackets will try to regroup in the offseason and hit the ground running next season. They have struggled this year in all aspects of the game, as goaltender Elvis Merzlikins explained.
“I’m tired…of losing the game, I know we are trying, but this is getting embarrassing, Merzlikins related to the media. It’s painful sitting in the locker room…I just want to delete this year and not think about it.”
That pretty much describes how the Blue Jackets’ year has gone. The good news is they currently sit 4th last in the NHL in points percentage. If that holds, they will likely be picking a top-five selection in this year’s draft. They will probably be adding one of Matthew Beniers, Owen Power, Simon Edvinsson, Dylan Guenther or Kent Johnson to their lineup.
A pick like Beniers or Johnson would be huge for their short-term and long-term success at the centre position.
The top three spots in the Central Division are all but clinched for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. However, the all-important fourth spot will go down to the last buzzer.
Three points separate the Predators, Blackhawks and Stars in the standings. All three teams have been at or above .500 in the past ten games. The Blackhawks were initially billed to be a bottom-feeder prior to the season. That is, before Patrick Kane exploded onto the scene once more.
Kane’s 58 points through 47 games played rank him tied for third in the NHL, behind only the Edmonton Oilers’ dynamic duo. He has accomplished this without much offensive support. Sure, Alex DeBrincat is having a fantastic year, but after him, there is not much else. The team has been spurred on by Kane and a fabulous rookie performance from Kevin Lankinen.
However, there are still glaring holes in the roster, namely their defense. Adam Boqvist has taken major steps forward in his game, yet lacks the ability to be a true number-one defenseman in the NHL. And Duncan Keith continues to age and lose speed year after year.
The Stars Align
The Dallas Stars are coming off of a surprise run to the Stanley Cup finals. They started the season behind everyone else because of a delay caused by COVID-19. They initially struggled, until another rookie goalie, this time named Jake Oettinger arrived.
Glimpses of the Stars’ young players were shown in the playoffs, but until now they have not proven they could be effective over a whole season. Roope Hintz, the Stars’ playoff hero, has taken off this year with 38 points in 33 games. And he has done that while only taking two minor penalties all season.
(Not So) Predatory Behavior
In 2017, which now feels like a hundred years ago, the Nashville Predators made waves with an uncalled-for trip to the Stanley Cup finals. They ultimately lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games but still made their mark. They were able to accomplish this because of their superb goaltending and defense, but also because of their depth at the forward position.
That year they had three players with more than 58 points and seven with more than 40. They had did not have that one big name that everyone leaned on, instead, it was a team effort all the way.
This year they have been in shambles for most of the season until Juuse Saros bailed them out. They have had their fair share of injuries but the majority of the blame should be placed on their top two centers, Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen.
The two have combined for eight goals this season and if the Predators want to make another run at the cup, they will need their expensive centers to carry the load.