Central Division preview

Now that we’ve finished with the Pacific Division, I’ll take a look at the Central Division here. There’s a solid chance that this could once again be the NHL’s top division.

CENTRAL DIVISION 

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Chicago: The Blackhawks are coming into the 2014-15 season with high expectations yet again. This team was one goal away from advancing to their second straight Stanley Cup Final this past season, where they probably would have won their second straight Cup in no more than six games. For the first time in a long time, they will actually have a real number two center in the form of Brad Richards, which should only make Patrick Kane that much more dangerous. They traded away Brandon Bollig this offseason to make room for guys such as Jeremy Morin, Peter Regin, and maybe even Teuvo Teravainen. The lack of depth on last year’s team was a big reason for them not knocking out the Kings in the Conference Final, and it is an area that I believe they have improved on this summer just by making the room for the players mentioned above. Corey Crawford, who had a decent but not great 2013-14 season, will need to be better this year, as will Antti Raanta. I’d expect the Hawks to finish no worse than second in this division.

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Colorado: The Avalanche were without a doubt last season’s biggest surprise. After finishing the 2012-13 season with the second fewest points in the NHL, the Avs came almost out of nowhere last year and ended with 112 points. Granted, they couldn’t get out of the first round, but it was still an impressive season. This offseason, they traded away P.A. Parenteau in exchange for Daniel Briere, and signed Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart, and Zach Redmond. They also lost Paul Stastny to the Blues. All of this sets the Avalanche up for what should be a very interesting season in Denver. If you look at Colorado’s team stats from last season, they are pretty great. If you also look at the players that performed best for them (I’m looking at you Varlamov), you might be a bit surprised. Semyon Varlamov put together a fantastic season for Colorado; one that he probably won’t duplicate this year. Their defensive corps are not great at all, to say the least, and this was proven in the Avs’ first round loss to the Wild last year. While Colorado definitely has a potentially lethal offense again, I just don’t see their defense being good enough to be anywhere close to as good as they were last season.

New_Dallas_Stars

Dallas: In my season preview last year, I noted that the Stars were being underrated by almost every NHL analyst at the time. I also said that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this team ended up as a playoff contender. Well, sure enough the Stars made the playoffs last season as the West’s second wild card team. This summer, they’ve only gotten better. Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky are the two biggest names to join the Stars since the end of last season, and Dallas fans have reason to be excited about that. The Stars now have two extremely good centers in Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza to go along with wingers such as Tyler Seguin (who can also play center) and Ales Hemsky. After that the names aren’t as recognizable, but the Stars are full of good role and depth forwards. On defense, Dallas really should have aggressively pursued one of the available top defensemen this offseason. As it stands now, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are arguably their two best d-men. In goal they still have Kari Lehtonen, who I firmly believe is one of the game’s most underrated players. Lehtonen was good last year, and he’ll need to be again this year seeing as how he will have a mediocre defense in front of him.

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Minnesota: The wild finished last season with 98 points, which I think a lot of people were surprised by. They went on to knock out the Avalanche in the first round (maybe the biggest “upset” of last year’s playoffs), and then lost to the Blackhawks in six games in the second round. Nonetheless, a successful season for the Wild. Like the Stars, I believe Minnesota has only improved since their season ended in May. They lost Matt Moulson to the Sabres via free agency, but they nicely replaced him with Thomas Vanek. On defense, they added some depth by signing Stu Bickel. Other than that, no new names on the Wild this year. So why are they better than last year? They now know what it takes to win a playoff series and their young guys gained valuable experience during last year’s playoff run. Guys like Coyle, Granlund, Haula, Neiderreiter, Brodin, and Spurgeon, all of whom are very young, should only be better this season. That’s not to mention they still have Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mikko Koivu who are all elite players. I guess the only real question mark with this team is who will be their number one goalie to begin the season. Look out for the Wild this year.

NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper

Nashville: Again, here’s another case of a team really improving this offseason. In exchange for Patric Hornqvist, the Predators acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh, and they also signed Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy (all three are centers). There’s no doubt that Nashville’s offense should be better this season than it was last year, as they ranked in the bottom half of the league in G/G. Defensively, they are still led by their captain Shea Weber who is also one of the NHL’s top d-men. Along with Weber, they’ll have Seth Jones entering his second professional season, as well as newcomer Anton Volchenkov, among a few others. Pekka Rinne will obviously be the team’s number one goalie again as he looks to have a bounce-back season after injuries plagued him all of last year. All in all, when you look at what the Predators have on their roster this upcoming season, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be a tough team to play against. However, because of the division they’re in, we won’t see them in the playoffs.

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St. Louis: The Blues were a popular pick to win their first ever Stanley Cup last season. Unfortunately for them, their first round opponent was none other than the defending champion Blackhawks, and we all know what happened there. Since then, the Blues lost their top goalie, Ryan Miller, but they did sign the top center on the market in Paul Stastny. They also signed defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Other than that, we’re pretty much looking at the same team this year as the one that exited the first round of the playoffs last year. My concern with St. Louis over the past few seasons has been their lack of firepower on offense. There’s no doubt that they have a great group of defensemen and defensive forwards, but they just haven’t had that player that can take over at any given time. Paul Stastny is a step in the right direction in that department, but I’m still not convinced that this team has the offensive weapons to go deep into the playoffs. Plus, they lost Ryan Miller to the Canucks and are left with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their two goalies. Elliott is not going to win you a Cup, and Jake Allen really has zero NHL experience. So while I’m sure a good handful of people will pick this team to win the Cup this year, I’m still not sold on their offense and definitely not their goaltending.

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Winnipeg: The Jets are still looking to make the playoffs for the first time since coming back to Winnipeg. They finished last year as the bottom team in the Central Division with 84 points, which was the highest point total of any team to finish last in their respective division. This season, the Jets are pretty much the same team as they were a year ago at this time. Evander Kane has been the victim of many trade rumors over the last few months, so it will be interesting to see if he is still a Jet by the time the trade deadline rolls around in the spring. Their offense is not great by any means, and their defense is sub-par. Goaltending may be the Jets’ biggest weakness as Ondrej Pavelec finished last year with a .901 save percentage and a 3.01 goals against average. All of that said, the Jets do have a handful of young forwards who could take the next step in their game this year. Unfortunately for Jets fans, however, this team won’t be a contender for a few years to come most likely.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Blackhawks 2. Blues 3. Wild 4. Stars 5. Avalanche 6. Predators 7. Jets

(One through six are all legitimate playoff contenders, and they could really finish in any order. Chicago is the only clear-cut number one team in the Central.)

PREDICTED WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS:

1. Ducks 2. Blackhawks 3. Kings 4. Blues 5. Sharks 6. Wild 7. Stars 8. Avalanche

(That’s five Central Division teams again, with the Stars and Avs grabbing the two Wild Card spots.)

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Blackhawks advance, wait for next opponent

130107_gq_trout_aWell, prior to the Blackhawks-Blues series I had predicted that the Hawks would come away victorious in six games. Turns out I was dead on, but that’s not quite how I expected the series to go. I was thinking more along the lines of each team winning one road game over the first four games, then the Hawks winning games 5 and 6. The latter came true, but I really didn’t think the Hawks would win four straight after going down 0-2 after the first two games. It doesn’t really matter though, a win is a win and I’ll take it.

The first two games of the series were won by the Blues, not lost by the Hawks. The Blues outplayed the Blackhawks in each of the first two games in St. Louis and wound up winning both in overtime (Game 1 in triple OT). With Brent Seabrook beginning his three game suspension, the series shifted to Chicago for games three and four, both won by the Blackhawks. Game 3 saw the Hawks dominate the first ten minutes, and then proceed to get badly outplayed for the remaining fifty. If not for Corey Crawford playing out of his mind, the Blues would have won that game 5-1. Instead, the Hawks won 2-0. Game 4 was more evenly matched, as the Hawks tied the game 3-3 late in regulation and went on to win in overtime, thanks to another memorable Patrick Kane goal. Game 5 was the big one.

139990-330-0Up to this point in the season, Game 5 against St. Louis was the biggest win of the year for the Blackhawks. The really did not want to go down 3-2 in the series and have to win a Game 7 in St. Louis. The Hawks struck first on a Hossa’s first goal of the playoffs, and got their second goal from Ben Smith, also his first of the playoffs. St. Louis tied it early in the third and the game ended up going to overtime for the fourth time in the series. After a good save by Crawford on David Backes, Duncan Keith’s frantic clearing attempt wound up on the tape of Jonathan Toews’ stick, and all that he had in front of him was open ice. Toews’, the one guy the Blues didn’t want on a breakaway in OT, scored to win the game and send the Hawks home up 3-2 in the series.

Game 6 was tied 1-1 going into the third before the Hawks blew it open and won 5-1. There may not be a better team in the NHL at putting teams away when they smell blood in the water. Duncan Keith played what Joel Quenneville called the best game he’s seen him play and recorded four points. Today, Keith was nominated for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defenseman.

So now we wait. The Hawks will get the winner of the Avalanche-Wild series in the second round. That series is currently being led by the Avs, 3-2. Tonight is Game 6, and I think all Hawks fans are hoping for a Minnesota victory for two reasons. One, the Wild are a much more desirable second round opponent than Colorado. Two, if the Wild win then there will be a Game 7, meaning each team will have to play that much more hockey before facing the Hawks.

Here’s the problem with facing the Avalanche. They’re fast (maybe the fastest in the league), and they force the Hawks to play a chip-and-chase game whenever the two teams meet. This season especially, Colorado’s speed and quickness up and down the ice has really given the Blackhawks fits, not to mention their incredible skill. While the Hawks have proven at times that they can be a successful team playing the chip-and-chase game, they prefer not to. Add this to the fact that the Avs would have the home-ice advantage, meaning the Hawks would have to play in the high altitude potentially four times, and I see some possible problems. However, the Wild may still win the series. While I would prefer that, the second you wish to play a certain opponent, they beat you.

Quick Hits

  • Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, and Shea Weber were named this year’s Norris Trophy finalists today. I think Alex Pietrangelo got ripped off here, as he put together one hell of a season for St. Louis (8G, 43A, 20 +/-). He’s bound to win the Norris in the future.
  • Anaheim, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal have all punched their ticket to the second round. Anaheim’s comeback in Game 6 over Dallas was one for the ages. The Boston-Montreal second round matchup is one to keep a close eye on. I think the Habs have the best shot of anyone in the East at knocking out the Bruins, and that includes the Penguins.
  • St. Louis has now been booted from the postseason in the first round two years in a row by the defending Cup champs in 6 games. Both years they had home-ice advantage, both years they won the first two games, and both years they lost the last four. Talk about back-to-back demoralizing defeats…
  • 18 year-old rookie Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche leads the postseason in points with 10. He is already being compared to Sidney Crosby. Colorado’s top line of MacKinnon, Stastny, and Landeskog has been lethal at times during this first round. Matt Duchene could be back in the lineup any day now.
  • The Sharks, after taking a commanding 3-0 lead over the Kings, have dropped two straight games. Game 6 is tonight in LA. The Sharks are looking to avoid what would be a miraculous comeback by the Kings in that series.

The second round of the playoffs is right around the corner, and I can’t wait.

 

NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals prediction

It has been a long time since the Western Conference was once as strong as it currently is. I cannot remember the last time that there were at least three, four, maybe even five teams from one conference who you could consider a serious Stanley Cup contender. Yet that is what we have in the Western Conference this year. I believe there are three sure candidates in the West to win the Cup this year: Anaheim, Chicago, and St. Louis. Teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Colorado could easily be considered strong Cup contenders as well, however I wouldn’t place them in the same class as those first three teams.

Having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-4 Matchup:

7327531 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Let’s start with Minnesota. The Wild finished the regular season with 98 points, good for seventh most in the West. They finished seventh in the entire NHL in GA/G with a 2.42 average. Their defense is the strongest part of their game, and they will need that to be the case against Colorado. It looks like trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov will be their starting netminder for Game One, due to injuries to both Backstrom and Harding during the regular season. Since coming to the Wild, Bryzgalov has been very good. He is 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts. On defense, Ryan Suter led the league for the second year in a row in playing time per game at 29:24. That’s basically half the game that he’s on the ice. While he is without question one of the premier defensmen in the game, you have to wonder if he isn’t just about burnt out. Playing half a game every game this year (he played in all 82), as well as playing for Team USA in the Olympics is a good recipe for exhaustion. The Wild, and Suter, are going to need the rest of their d-men to pick up their play and take some of the weight off of Suter’s shoulders. On offense, this is where the Wild have been challenged. They finished the regular season ranked twenty fourth in goals per game at 2.43, which is not good. Jason Pominville was their leading scorer recording 30 goals and 30 assists (60 points), while guys like Parise, Koivu, and Heatley had down seasons while also battling injuries.

As for Colorado, the Avalanche are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, recording 112 points to finish third overall in the NHL. I think it’s safe to say no one saw that coming in September. Their strongest aspect of their game is their offense, where they finished fourth in the league in goals per game at 2.99. Matt Duchene led the way for the Avs by finishing with 70 points (23G, 47A). Unfortunately for Colorado, however, Duchene has been out with a knee injury for a few weeks now and is not expected to return to the lineup until late in round one, if not later than that. On top of that, Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie, John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, and Cory Sarich are all injured as well. The severity of Hejda’s injury is still a bit unknown, and he could miss the beginning of this series. Same goes for John Mitchell, who was diagnosed with a concussion. On defense, the Avalanche are young and inexperienced in the postseason (you could say the same about their forwards). If Hejda and Sarich miss any significant playoff time, the Avs could be in trouble on the blue line. Their defensmen are quite talented and quick, especially Erik Johnson, but their lack of experience in the playoffs and pressure-packed games worries me. They finished in the middle of the pack in GA/G, fifteenth overall, at 2.63. Semyon Varlamov, coming off his best season in the NHL, will need to continue his strong play in net. He finished the year 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA. If Varlamov stays hot against the Wild, Minnesota and their struggling offense could be in trouble.

I think the biggest factor in this series is going to be the health of the Avalanche. They will be without Duchene for most, if not all of the series, but how soon will the other injured players be able to play? Also, will the lack of experience on the Avalanche come back to haunt them? These things concern me with Colorado, but their skill and speed make me believe they will get by Minnesota despite the injuries. Don’t be surprised though if they lose the first game and begin to panic.

-Colorado wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

st-louis-blues-logo vs. 56

Could you ask for a better first round series? Two weeks ago, no one would have thought these two teams would meet in the first round, but thanks to the Blues’ six-game losing streak to finish out the regular season, here we are. The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, have had a very up and down second half to their season. Following the Olympic break, they have been mostly a .500 team. They ended the year with 107 points, but still won’t have home ice advantage in the this first round. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both missed the last few weeks of the season due to injury, but both are expected back and healthy for Game One in St. Louis. Chicago’s greatest strength is their offense. They were second in goals per game this year with a 3.18 average, and they had five players finish the season with 60 points or more, led by Patrick Sharp with 78. On defense, Duncan Keith was arguably the best defensmen in hockey this season (6G, 55A), and he is considered the favorite to win the Norris Trophy. Brent Seabrook has had a good, but not great year despite what you might hear from TV broadcasters. The unsung hero of the Hawks’ defensive corps is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He and his partner Johnny Oduya get the toughest defensive assignment every game, going up against the opponents best offensive line. These two will need to play like they did one year ago at this time to beat the Blues. In goal, Corey Crawford is coming off of a decent season in which he had a 2.26 GAA. He will be coming into the playoffs following maybe his best stretch of the season. Guys like Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, and Kris Versteeg are going to have to produce this postseason for the Hawks to be successful. The depth of the Blackhawks could be what wins or loses them this series.

The Blues are skating backwards into the playoffs as losers of six straight to finish the season. I can guarantee you that the last thing they wanted was to fall to second in the division and have to open the playoffs against the defending champs and longtime rival Blackhawks. The Blues have prided themselves on their defense this year, and rightfully so. They finished the season third in GA/G with a 2.29 average. Alex Pietrangelo has earned himself some consideration for the Norris Trophy, as he leads one of the best blue lines in hockey. He and Jay Bouwmeester have been one of the league’s best pairings all season. In net, the Blues traded for Ryan Miller at the deadline, and he has been both good and bad for them. Since coming to the Blues, he is 10-8-1 with a 2.47 GAA. Backup netminder Brian Elliott finished the year 18-6-2 with a 1.96 GAA, so look for the Blues to turn to him if Miller struggles early in this series. Offensively is where the potential problems begin for this team. They finished the year ranked 7th in goals per game, but are entering the playoffs having scored just TEN goals in their last nine games. In those nine games, they were shutout four times, and lost the final six. That cannot continue if they want any chance at beating Chicago. The Blues did finish the year with five players scoring over 20 goals, but their offense has disappeared lately. Before the season, I said that the Blues’ lack of offensive firepower is what may hold them back against teams like Chicago this year, and now that theory will be put to the test.

This series is hands-down the most intriguing of all first round series this year. Both teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but one will go home early. I’d expect the Blues to try and use their physical and often dirty play to wear down the Hawks in the first couple of games. Chicago has to stick to their style of play and not try and become a more physical team than they really are. If Kane and Toews are in fact 100 percent for this series and can remain healthy, I think the Hawks have the edge. After all, since 2010, no team has been better on the road in the postseason than Chicago, and they’ll need at least one road win to win this series.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. New_Dallas_Stars

I said in my season preview back before the season began that people were underrating the Dallas Stars and that they could be a potential playoff contender. Well look, here they are. Dallas enters the playoffs with fewer regular season points than any other team to qualify for the postseason, but that doesn’t really mean much to them. Surprisingly, or maybe not to some, the Stars finished the season ranked tenth in the entire NHL in goals per game, thanks in large part to Tyler Seguin (37G, 47A) and Jamie Benn (34G, 45A). These two have been one of the league’s best duos all season long, and I would not want to have to try and defend them in a seven game series. Unfortunately for the Stars, there is a major drop off after those two. The next closest player on the team to Benn in points was defenseman Alex Goligoski, who had 42. This is possibly the Stars’ biggest problem. After their top line with Benn and Seguin, their offense really flattens out. Their defensive unit is rather weak. After trading Robidas to the Ducks, ironically, they were left with Goligoski as their top blue liner. Besides him, Trevor Daley is their next best d-man, and after that it’s really a toss up. Going against a potent Ducks offense could spell disaster for the Dallas defense. Kari Lehtonen, who in my opinion is the most underrated goalie in hockey, will have to stay strong in net and single handedly win a couple games for the Stars if they want to advance.

The Ducks come into the postseason having finished first in the West in points (116), and second in the NHL behind the Bruins. They led the league in goals per game (3.21), and finished ninth in GA/G (2.48). They have what many consider to be the best line in hockey, consisting of both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf, who finished with 87 points, is considered to be a Hart Trophy candidate as the league’s MVP. Perry finished right behind him with 43 goals (second in the NHL) and 82 points. I think it’s safe to say that offense shouldn’t be much of a problem for this team. On defense, the Ducks are led by Cam Fowler, who finished 36 points on the year. The problem with the Anaheim defense is much like the same problem Colorado has. They have a lot of skill, but not very much experience. The Ducks made the playoffs last year, but lost to Detroit in seven games in the first round. The inexperience on their blue line could be a problem, especially in the later rounds. Their goaltender, Jonas Hiller, finished the season with a 2.48 GAA. His backup Frederik Andersen, however, ended the season with a 20-5-0 record and a 2.29 GAA. While Hiller is their definite number one, look for the Ducks to yank him if he stumbles out of the gates. Neither Anaheim goalie has much playoff experience, which may or may not be costly this postseason.

I think the Stars may win a game here, but for the most part I expect Anaheim to win this series rather easily.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-1.

2-3 Matchup:

crestonwht_rgb vs. 940-couture-logan

Next to the Blackhawks-Blues series, I think this is the second best series of the entire first round, and it is sure to be a physical one. The Kings ended the year pretty strong and finished with 100 points. Many, myself included, thought they would have had a better year than this, but 100 points is still 100 points, especially in the Western Conference. The Kings are led by their defense and goalie. LA has what may be the best set of defensemen in hockey, led by Drew Doughty. They finished first in the NHL in fewest GA/G, and allowed the fewest total goals in the league. I’ve always believed that defense wins championships (last year, the Blackhawks allowed the least amount of goals during the regular season and won the Stanley Cup). Jonathan Quick, while injured most of the first half of the season, finished with a 2.07 GAA, which is ridiculously good, but only managed to have a 27-17-4 record. That really doesn’t compute, unless you look at LA’s offense. They finished twenty-sixth in goals per game this year. When you have a defense and goaltending as good as they do, you need to score more goals than this. Anze Kopitar led the Kings with 70 points, followed by Jeff Carter with 50. That’s a twenty-point difference there and something the Kings would have liked to have been better. They added Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, and since then he has registered 5 goals and 11 assists in 19 games. He should help boost LA’s scoring heading into this series, and they’re going to need it.

San Jose comes into this series after a 111-point regular season. This team always seems to finish near the top of the conference year in and year out, so give credit to their coaching staff and front office. The Sharks ranked sixth this season in goals per game, and fifth in goals-against per game. That’s a very good combination for obvious reasons. Three players on this team finished the year with at least 70 points (Pavelski, Thornton, and Marleau), and I think Logan Couture could have reached the 70-point plateau had he been healthy all year. Their top two lines are extremely dangerous and consist of some of the best players in the league when it comes to winning faceoffs. It’s their bottom two lines that may be troublesome for the Sharks as they often lack offensive production. Their defensive unit is one of the better ones in the West, as all six defensemen are smart, responsible, and possess a lot of playoff experience. Plus, they were a huge reason for the team finishing fifth in GA/G. Dan Boyle (37 years old) was the leading point-getter on the Sharks blue line this year, and I wonder how he will hold up in an extremely physical playoffs series like this one against LA. He already went down with a concussion earlier in the season, and I’m sure he’ll be a primary target of the Kings. In net, Antti Niemi ended the year tied for second in the NHL in wins and had a 2.39 GAA. Yet, many Sharks fans have been critical of Niemi during the second half of the year due to some lackluster performances. Still, Niemi is one of the league’s best goalies and did win a Stanley Cup not too long ago. If the Sharks’ offense can find a way to beat Jonathan Quick, and if Antti Niemi can be even just good in net, I think they’ll win this series.

This series all comes down to goaltending. Will Jonathan Quick return to his annual playoff form and carry the Kings to the second round? Or will he be human like he was in the Conference Finals last season? If Quick shuts down the Sharks like he has so many times before, the Kings will win. However, I think San Jose is better than they were last year when LA knocked them out in seven games and they will find a way to beat Quick this year.

-San Jose wins series, 4-3.

Check back tomorrow for my Eastern Conference predictions.

Blackhawks gaining ground/ NHL update

Ryan-MillerSince their loss to the Predators on March 14th at the United Center, the Blackhawks have all of a sudden achieved seven points in their last four games and have taken a three point lead over the Avalanche for second place in the Central Division. With the Blues’ loss earlier today in Philadelphia, the Blackhawks now have a chance to bring the deficit between them and St. Louis down to just two points for the division lead if they can win tomorrow night against Nashville and if the Blues lose in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long ago that the Blues had a nine point edge and the Avs a one point edge over the Hawks, but things can change quickly in the NHL as we are currently witnessing.

For the Blackhawks to hold onto second place in the Central or take the division lead, they are going to need a lot of guys to step up. With Patrick Kane now sidelined for the remainder of the regular season, they need to fill his shoes by committee. In last night’s win over Carolina, Sharp (who had been in a major scoring slump) and Versteeg both stepped up to the plate and delivered with big goals to help lead the Hawks to a 3-2 win. Toews added the third and game-winning goal in typical Jonathan Toews fashion. The Blackhawks will need guys like Sharp, Versteeg, Shaw, Bickell, and Saad to pick up their game down the final stretch here to help make up for Kane’s absence from the lineup.

7327531One positive that we can take away from Kane’s injury is the fact that it opened up a roster spot for Teuvo Teravainen, the number four prospect in the NHL who’s team in Finland was just eliminated from their playoffs last week. Teravainen was introduced to the media on Friday and is expected to see playing time within the next two games. How well he adapts to the NHL and ultimately how well he plays will determine whether or not he becomes an everyday starter for this team from here on out. The Blackhawks badly need a number two center, and Teuvo Teravainen appears to be that guy in the future. Can he be that guy right now is the real question, however. Only time will tell. If Teravainen does become an effective and dangerous player between now and the playoffs, then one would have to think the Blackhawks will make yet another strong push for the Stanley Cup, not that they couldn’t already.

130107_gq_trout_aThe Hawks also signed Matt Carey who just finished up his first collegiate season of hockey at St. Lawrence University. Carey, 22, is a center who tied for his team lead in goals this season and is said to be a solid two-way player. He will most likely see action in a few games before the end of the regular season, but he won’t be on the playoff roster. It’s a similar situation to the one we saw with Drew LeBlanc last season at this same time.

Looking ahead, I am very anxious to see just how well Teravainen adapts to the NHL and whether or not he becomes a guy the Hawks can trust as their number two center. Staying focused and not letting the pressure from the media and fans get to him will be key for Teravainen.

As for the rest of the NHL, the Bruins seem to be the biggest story at the moment. They have been near the top of the Eastern Conference all season, but now they have won eleven straight games, are tied for the league lead in points with the Blues, and are the first team in the league to have clinched a playoff berth. They are on a serious role right now and appear poised to make another deep run in the playoffs. Their defense and goaltending are just about as good as you’ll find in the NHL, and everyone knows you can’t win a Cup without those two things.

Out west, the Sharks have overtaken the Ducks in the Pacific Division for the division lead. San Jose is 8-1-1 over their last ten games while Anaheim is a weak 4-4-2. I mentioned in a previous blog post that the Ducks have been susceptible to late season collapses over the past few years, and it appears they are headed in that same direction again unless they can turn things around in the next couple games.

The Metropolitan Division still seems to be the most crowded division point-wise. The second place team in that division (Philadelphia) and the fifth place team (Washington) are separated by just six points, with New Jersey sitting in sixth just four points behind the Capitals. It’ll be fun watching these teams to see who gets hot and makes their way into the postseason.

As I previously mentioned, the top of the Central Division is now a lot closer than it was even just three days ago. The Blues lead the Blackhawks by four points for the division 940-couture-loganlead at the moment, and if the Blues lose tomorrow afternoon and the Hawks win tomorrow night, that gap will be down to just two points. Colorado lost last night to Boston while the Blackhawks won, stretching Chicago’s lead to three points over the Avs for second place in the Central. It will be huge for the two-seed in this division to get home-ice during the first round of the playoffs. As a Chicago fan, I know that having home-ice in a series against the Blues will be even bigger.

The season is quickly coming to an end, yet only one team has clinched a playoff spot. We are in for another good finish.