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Central: Blues, Blackhawks battling for first

by John Kreiser

The St. Louis Blues spent most of the first four months of the season trying to catch the Chicago Blackhawks for first place in the Central Division. The Blues did it by winning three of their final four games before the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Now their task is to stay on top.

St. Louis returns to action with the best goal differential in the NHL at plus-61. Its forward lines are talented and deep and the defense is strong in its zone and moves the puck well. Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have been solid if not spectacular.

Though St. Louis and Chicago each have 84 points, perhaps the biggest advantage the Blues hold in their quest to finish ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champions is that they've played three fewer games.

The Blues and Blackhawks are five points ahead of the surprising Colorado Avalanche, who look like a lock to earn the third of the Central's automatic playoff berths. The holders of the two Western Conference wild-card spots are well behind. The fourth-place Minnesota Wild trail Colorado by 10 points and the Dallas Stars are another five points behind Minnesota.

The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators have a chance to catch Dallas for the second wild-card berth in a race that could see five teams chasing one spot.

Here's a look at the seven Central teams as they prepare for the stretch run:

STL St. Louis Blues (39-12-6)

Position: 1st in division, 2nd in conference

Games remaining: 25 (11 home, 14 away)

What went right: Forward Alexander Steen (28 goals in 46 games) is having a career year and is one of five Blues with at least 41 points. Forward David Backes has 20 goals after scoring six in 48 games last season. The defense pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester is among the best in the NHL; those two and Kevin Shattenkirk give the Blues three 30-point scorers on the blue line.

Where they've struggled: St. Louis wasn't as sharp defensively in the two weeks before the break, allowing an opponent to overcome a two-goal lead in three consecutive games. Elliott has allowed three goals in each of his past four starts, and neither goaltender is much better than the League-average in save percentage.

What they're looking for: If the Blues decide their goaltending isn't good enough to make a long Cup run, they could try to land a top-tier netminder like Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres. Otherwise, general manager Doug Armstrong doesn't figure to do much more than tinker with a roster that has few, if any, holes.

Scheduling: The Blues play their first three games and six of their first seven on the road. Their game against the Blackhawks on March 19 begins a four-game trip that's followed by a five-game homestand. They also visit Chicago on April 6.

Outlook: St. Louis is on the way to the best regular season in franchise history. With three games in hand, the division title is there to take, and a big finish could give the Blues their second Presidents' Trophy.

CHI Chicago Blackhawks (35-11-14)

Position: 2nd in division, 3rd in conference

Games remaining: 22 (12 home, 10 away)

What went right: Forward Patrick Kane (27 goals, 63 points) leads the NHL's most dynamic offense, with plenty of help from Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and a deep cast up front. Defenseman Duncan Keith may be even better than he was when he won the Norris Trophy four years ago. Rookie goalie Antti Raanta played well enough to keep the Blackhawks near the top of the NHL when Corey Crawford was injured.

Where they've struggled: The Blackhawks have not put away some opponents after outplaying them badly for most of the game. They've also lost a League-high 14 games after regulation and Crawford has more losses in OT and shootouts (10) than in regulation (nine). The penalty kill is 29th in the League at home and 26th overall.

What they're looking for: Chicago always seems to be looking for a second-line center, and bolstering its depth up front is never a bad idea.

Scheduling: The Blackhawks resume play by finishing a seven-game road trip with a game against the New York Rangers then come home to host the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 1 at Soldier Field in the final Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game. Chicago has six of seven at home in mid-March and hosts the Blues twice.

Outlook: Chicago should finish no worse than second in the division; they might need to defeat St. Louis twice in regulation to finish first.

COL Colorado Avalanche (37-16-5)

Position: 3rd in division, 5th in conference

Games remaining: 24 (12 home, 12 away)

What went right: Colorado put a lot of points in the bank early by winning 12 of its first 13 under new coach Patrick Roy. Goalie Semyon Varlamov (28-11-5, 2.48 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) emerged as a true No. 1. Forward Nathan MacKinnon, the first player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, leads the Avalanche with 22 goals despite spending much of the season on the third line. He's part of a balanced offense that includes five players with 41 or more points.

Where they've struggled: Varlamov's play has helped to cover up a defense that has allowed 32.3 shots per game, the most among any of the playoff contenders in the West. The offense has sputtered at times.

What they're looking for: More depth on the blue line wouldn't hurt, though how much executive vice president Joe Sakic and GM Greg Sherman would be willing to give up is a question.

Scheduling: Colorado plays its first three games and seven of its first nine at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche end the season with four in a row out West, capped by a visit to the Anaheim Ducks in the season finale.

Outlook: Colorado could wind up being the best third-place team in the NHL, earning a first-round matchup against either the Blackhawks or Blues without the home-ice edge. That's still a major jump for a team that was next-to-last in the overall standings last season.

MIN Minnesota Wild (31-21-7)

Position: 4th in division, 6th in conference (1st wild-card berth)

Games remaining: 23 (11 home, 12 away)

What went right: Goalie Josh Harding leads the NHL with a 1.65 GAA and is third in save percentage at .933. When he was idled by his battle with multiple sclerosis, Darcy Kuemper stepped in and went 8-2-2. Defenseman Ryan Suter is a Norris Trophy candidate and leads the NHL in ice time at 29:49 per game. The Wild have survived injuries that claimed their top two goaltenders and two-thirds of the first line to put themselves solidly into the top eight in the West.

Josh Harding
Goalie - MIN
RECORD: 18-7-3
GAA: 1.65 | SVP: 0.933
Where they've struggled: The Wild generate 26.9 shots on goal per game, the fewest among any team that reached the break in a playoff spot. Minnesota is among the NHL's best home teams (21-7-2) but has lost 19 of 29 on the road. Harding has been on injured reserve since Dec. 31 and there's no sign he'll return.

What they're looking for: Captain Mikko Koivu is almost ready to return from a broken ankle, which should give the offense a boost. GM Chuck Fletcher paid a big price last year to rent forward Jason Pominville, then signed him to a long-term contract. He's unlikely to give up a lot of young assets for a rental unless he can follow the same scenario.

Scheduling: Minnesota has a four-game homestand in mid-March and a four-game trip in late March/early April before ending with four of five at home.

Outlook: The Wild have survived their injuries and return to action five points ahead of Dallas for the first wild-card berth. With Harding's return in doubt, Fletcher will have to count on Kuemper and veteran Niklas Backstrom in goal or make a major deal.

DAL Dallas Stars (27-21-10)

Position: 5th in division, 8th in conference (2nd wild-card berth)

Games remaining: 24 (12 home, 12 away)

What went right: The trade that brought forward Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins looks like a winner for new GM Jim Nill; Seguin has 56 points in 56 games and has taken over as the No. 1 center. Captain Jamie Benn (51 points) has meshed with Seguin and was good enough to earn a spot on the Canada Olympic team. Top draft pick Valeri Nichushkin (13 goals, 28 points, plus-16) justified the decision to keep him in the NHL as an 18-year-old forward. Kari Lehtonen has been solid in goal.

Where they've struggled: The Stars sometimes play too much run-and-gun hockey; they take 31.6 shots per game and allow 30.7. The power play connects on 12.6 percent of its chances at home. There's a huge drop-off in scoring after Seguin and Benn; Nichushkin and forward Cody Eakin are tied for third on the team in scoring with 28 points.

What they're looking for: The Stars seemed like they might be sellers until a hot stretch before the break moved them into a playoff berth. Veteran forwards Vernon Fiddler and Ray Whitney could be traded to make room for younger players. Getting defenseman Stephane Robidas back from a broken leg should give the blue line a boost.

Scheduling: Dallas returns from the break with six of seven games at home. The Stars play five in a row on the road beginning March 29 against the Blues.

Outlook: A month before the break, the Stars looked like they would spend the final weeks focusing on next season. Instead, they own the final playoff berth as play resumes. Dallas will have to tighten up defensively to keep it.

WPG Winnipeg Jets (28-26-6)

Position: 6th in division, 11th in conference

Games remaining: 22 (12 home, 10 away)

What went right: The Jets took off after Paul Maurice replaced Claude Noel as coach Jan. 12, going 9-3-1 to get back into the playoff race. Forward Blake Wheeler (22 goals, 48 points) played well enough to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic team and leads a balanced offense that includes nine players who've reached double figures in goals. Rookie center Mark Scheifele and first-year defenseman Jacob Trouba are both plus-9, the best on the team.

Where they've struggled: Goalie Ondrej Pavelec is not in the top 40 in GAA (2.97) or save percentage (.901); his 22 losses are tied with Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres for the most in the League. Seven teams have allowed more non-shootout goals than the Jets (170). The power play is 24th in the NHL (14.4 percent) and 29th on the road (9.3 percent).

What they're looking for: With a lot of players signed to long-term contracts, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff may not have a lot of wiggle room to trade unless he's willing to think big.

Scheduling: The Jets play seven of their first nine games and nine of their first 12 after the break at MTS Centre. That's followed by a five-game trip featuring games against the three California teams.

Outlook: The Jets look like a different team under Maurice than they did under Noel. But to make the playoffs for the first time since moving from Atlanta three years ago, Winnipeg will have to continue to tighten up defensively and pile up points during the home-friendly part of their remaining schedule.

NSH Nashville Predators (25-24-10)

Position: 7th in division, 12th in conference

Games remaining: 23 (11 home, 12 away)

Shea Weber
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 23 | PTS: 38
SOG: 139 | +/-: -10
What went right: Defenseman Shea Weber is playing at a Norris Trophy level and is a big reason the power play is in the top 10. Forward Craig Smith has exceeded his career high with 18 goals and tied his career high with 36 points. The Predators are tied for second in the NHL on faceoffs at 53.2 percent. Rookie goaltenders Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec have had some good moments in place of Pekka Rinne, who's missed most of the season with injury.

Where they've struggled: The goaltenders haven't been consistent, and the trade that brought Devan Dubnyk from the Edmonton Oilers hasn't helped. The penalty kill is 27th and the Predators are 27th in 5-on-5 goal ratio at 0.79. Nashville is 1-7 in shootouts; the points the Predators have left on the table are the reason they're not in the top eight.

What they're looking for: GM David Poile brought in Dubnyk from the Oilers and swapped defensemen with the New York Rangers, acquiring Michael Del Zotto for Kevin Klein. Rinne's status could determine whether Poile is a buyer or a seller.

Scheduling: Nashville starts with a five-game homestand then plays seven of eight on the road, including a four-game trip through Western Canada and Chicago.

Outlook: Rinne skated when Nashville resumed during the break, but there's no timetable for his return. Without him, it's hard to picture the Predators jumping the teams in front of them to make the playoffs.


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