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Central: Division title another big step for Hawks

by Phil Coffey
Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks returned to the postseason for the first time since 2002. This season, the Hawks won their first division title in 17 years.

Yes, things appear to be moving in the right direction in the Windy City.

That last title was a Norris Division crown in 1992-93, so it's been a long time as Blackhawks fans can attest. But for the current players, the news was, well, news, since they have been more concerned with honing their game fore the Stanley Cup Playoffs than anything else.

"A lot of guys didn't know that in here," Patrick Sharp told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune after Sunday's 4-1 win over Calgary. "I definitely didn't know it. It feels good to be division champs. It was a goal of ours at the start of the season."

The Hawks' ascent to the Central Division title ends the Detroit Red Wings' eight-season run as champs.

"It's fun to be part of history, it really is," Patrick Kane said. "Seventeen years ... I was 4 years old the last time they won the division, so it's been a long time coming for Blackhawks fans. It's fun to beat out the Red Wings, a big rival."

"It's a major accomplishment for us," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Detroit has been at the top for several years and that was a big barrier and hurdle for us organizationally to get over and achieve. That was one of our goals right from the outset that we met."

The Hawks still have room to improve. A fast finish, starting Tuesday night in Dallas, could see Chicago overtake San Jose for the top spot in the Western Conference. The Hawks are two points back with a game in hand.

"Forget about first place in the Central," defenseman Duncan Keith told Kuc. "What we're trying to do right now is get to the point where we're playing our best. We've played pretty solid the last few games. We want to keep that going and head on into the playoffs."

Wings are in -- Stow all the talk about the Red Wings not securing a Stanley Cup Playoff berth for a 19th straight season. Despite losing in Philadelphia Sunday, 4-3, the Red Wings clinched a berth when Calgary lost to Chicago.

"I thought we played hard," coach Mike Babcock said after the loss to the desperate Flyers. "I thought we did a lot of good things. We had every opportunity in the end to score, and we weren't able to do so. I would have liked to see us play a little bit harder at the end of the game last night; in saying that, I thought today was fine."

Chris Osgood got a rare start against the Flyers and played well. It was his first start since Jan. 27 and just his second appearance in 26 games. He later joked with reporters that he engineered an equipment repair to his helmet so he would get some face time on NBC.

"First period, I knew I wasn't going to feel great, but the second and third, I felt like I was moving -- just following it and moving around, tracking pucks in traffic and stuff," he said.

"He hadn't played in a bit, so good for him to get in a game," Babcock said. "We'd have liked to get a win for him, but we didn't get it done."

Stayin' alive --
Thanks to a 2-1 overtime win over Columbus on Monday night, the St. Louis Blues are remain alive in the playoff race, but still face some long odds, trailing eighth-seed Colorado by four points with one fewer game remaining.

The win over Columbus was the fifth straight at Scottrade Center, which illustrates why the Blues are trailing. The Blues are just 17-18-5 at home this season.

"It's a shame," goaltender Chris Mason told Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the team's poor record at home. "We feel terrible about it, that's the reason why we're in the situation that we are. But hopefully, as a team, and for everybody here next year, you learn from what we've done. Those games you don't think are going to hurt you in the middle of the season put us in a situation where we really don't have control of what happens here."

"We're not out of it yet, our goal is still the playoffs," Erik Johnson told Norm Sanders of the Belleville News-Democrat. "You want to have your fate in your own hands, but we're in this position and we'll have to see what the other teams do."

Preds have bigger goals --
Making the playoffs simply isn't enough for the Nashville Predators. They want to immerse themselves in the postseason and drink it all in.

"We want to be playing our best hockey going in, because it's not about just squeaking in," defenseman Ryan Suter told John Glennon of the Tennessean. "It's about being ready to do something when you get to the playoffs."

"We talked about playing right to the end," coach Barry Trotz said. "Let's play 82 strong games and then we'll worry about who we play and how we stack up against other teams."

The Preds have some daunting streaks to overcome in the playoffs. They have never won a series (0-4) and have yet to win a road game (0-10).

"We know that if you're not playing good when you get in the playoffs ... we've done that before and lost in the first round," Suter said. "We want to be at the top of our game when it comes to the playoffs and hopefully we can achieve that."

Noel likes his leaders -- Columbus Blue Jackets coach Claude Noel told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch that he is very pleased with the leadership roles taken by Rick Nash and R.J. Umberger.

"The leaders on this team are really good," Noel said. "When you give them the responsibility and you believe in them and you help them along the way and show them what you think they can be, it can go a long way.

"I haven't overly managed them. I've left it for them to do, but they understand what we're looking for."

Portzline says Umberger, an alternate captain, has become the conscience of the club the past two seasons, a hard-working player who expects to win.

"The disappointing thing from my side is, where was this (winning spurt) earlier in the year?" Umberger said of the team's 7-4-2 record in the last 13 games.

"We have been playing harder. We're capable of being in the playoffs, and we let it slide.

"That's not acceptable anymore, and we have to be accountable for it regardless of who's the coach -- we have to go out and play."

Around the Central -- With Tomas Kopecky's goal to open the scoring Sunday against the Flames, the Hawks became just the third team in the NHL to have 11 or more players with at least 10 goals. ... After committing no penalties Friday against the New Jersey Devils, the Hawks were called for only one Sunday, Jonathan Toews going off for hooking in the first period. The game against the Devils was the first since 2001 in which no penalties were assessed. ... Chicago has swept the season series with the Flames for two straight seasons. Factor in the teams' playoff series last spring and Chicago is 12-2 vs. Calgary. ... Chris Osgood on getting his first start since Jan. 27 in Sunday's loss in Philadelphia. "I feel a lot better playing every once a week than would every once in two months," Osgood said. "That's almost like the summer off. But if I get one more game, I'll be 100 percent ready for the playoffs -- this game, just little things like tracking the puck, finding it and following passes, as the game went along it just came naturally, and that's what I wanted. I didn't want to be out there thinking, and I got to that point -- so we didn't win. But for me, it was a step in the right direction for getting ready for the playoffs." ... Dan Cleary returned to the Detroit lineup Sunday. He had missed four games with a groin injury. ... Since a team meeting on March 8 after a lopsided, 8-0 loss to Los Angeles, the Blue Jackets are 7-2-2. ... Blues veteran defenseman Barret Jackman sat out his second straight game Monday with an undisclosed upper-body injury suffered last week against Nashville.
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