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Central has shot of sending all of its teams to playoffs

by Dan Rosen /
If St. Louis, Nashville and Columbus all get their way, the five Central Division teams will accomplish something that hasn't happened in 28 years.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one time in the expansion era has every team from the same division made the playoffs. It's only happened in 1980-81, when the entire Adams Division -- Buffalo, Boston, Minnesota, Quebec and Toronto -- made it into the top 16.

At that time, the NHL playoffs were made up of the top 16 teams in the 21-team league.

"Hey," St. Louis GM Larry Pleau told, "we're hoping that happens again."

Entering play Friday, Detroit and Chicago had all but sealed a berth into the spring dance, and Columbus was closer to fifth than ninth. Nashville was tied with Edmonton with 71 points, but in ninth only because it has two games in hand. St. Louis was 12th, but only three points out of the eighth spot.

Is it really possible? Mathematically it may not work out because there are 18 inter-divisional games left this season, including nine for the Blue Jackets and eight for the Blackhawks.

"I still think it's going to be tough for five teams to make it because unless you have lots of three-point games within the division the rest of the way, some team is going to have to lose some games," Detroit GM Ken Holland told "Certainly it wouldn't surprise me if four teams made it from our division."

Still, it remains possible that all five make it for a number of reasons, the most important of which has to do with amount of divisional games.

The percentages of all five teams from one division making the playoffs increased when the League decided to go with more of a balanced schedule. Instead of playing divisional rivals eight times, they now meet six times, which gives them more of an opportunity to beat up on the rest of the League.

"When you have eight games against teams in your own division, it's hard to get five teams out of one division because you're playing each other so much and you're knocking each other off," Holland said.

Also, as Chicago GM Dale Tallon said, the Blackhawks, Blues and Blue Jackets all are "ahead of the curve and as far as the development process and perhaps that has expedited our competitive level and gives us all a chance."

As recently as the 2006-07 season, Detroit had 113 points and Nashville had 110, but the next best team in the Central Division was St. Louis with 81. In 2005-06, Detroit had 124 points and Nashville 106, but Columbus was next with 74, good for 13th in the conference.

"Nashville would have 110 points and we would have 120 points and these other three teams played Nashville and played us and they couldn't accumulate points," Holland said. "Now they're getting outside the division and I think our division is a lot better than people give it credit for. The proof is in the standings."

The Central Division hasn't had more than two teams qualify for the playoffs since Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville all made it in 2003-04.

Balance is key -- Until their current three-game losing streak, the Predators had done an about-face this season. Asked what he attributes that to, GM David Poile gave a menu of reasons.

"Just being a better overall, committed and focused team with terrific goaltending, better goal scoring and the addition of Steve Sullivan," Poile said. "A lot of things have come together to make us a little bit better than we were."

That being said, Poile never thought the Predators were all that bad before Feb. 1. They just flipped the switch a little.

Prior to Feb. 1, Nashville was 16-14-3 in games decided by two goals or fewer. Since that time, they are 10-3-2 in those games, including a remarkable 6-0-2 in games decided by a single goal.

"We were, as they say, finding ways to lose," Poile said. "Now in a lot of places we're winning in a shootout, winning in overtime, winning by one in regulation."

Poile said the Predators' play is why he didn't find it necessary to toy with his team at the deadline. He did not make any moves, though he may now wish he did considering the team has hit a losing streak (0-2-1) after winning five in a row.

Hawks on the mend -- There's good news in Chicago these days. Nikolai Khabibulin was activated off of injured reserve Thursday, and Patrick Sharp and Sami Pahlsson appear close to returning as well.

Khabibulin missed 12 games; Sharp hasn't played since Feb. 14; Pahlsson, who was acquired at the trade deadline, hasn't played since Jan. 31.

Cristobal Huet did a fine job as the No. 1 goalie while Khabibulin was out and it may have been good enough to win him the job, but Tallon wasn't tipping his hand, though he did say a decision on that is coming soon.

"We're going to get down to the nitty-gritty, so one guy will get the brunt of the workload," Tallon said. "We still don't know who that is. It's a matter of who wants to run with it now. I think the decision will come soon."

He said it -- Here's St. Louis Blues GM Larry Pleau answering a question about if he's surprised his young squad is within striking distance of a playoff berth despite a 19-23-4 record at the All-Star Break (the Blues are 12-5-4 since the break):

"I don't think so because we started to really play at another level starting Jan. 1. We have been operating under the motto that every game is a playoff game for a while now. We'd like to make it and we'll be disappointed if we don't. We realize we're a young team and we have lots of years ahead of us, but we want to make it. We want to get ourselves in and we feel that rush to get into the playoffs and be successful. The players have worked hard to get to this point. We know it's tough, but it's not worth it if it's not tough."

He said it, Part II -- Here's Chicago GM Dale Tallon answering a question about whether his Hawks have exceeded expectations this season. In a nutshell, Tallon says yes:

"We thought we'd be battling for a playoff spot and we are still there. We figured we'd be battling for that (seventh or eighth) spot. We're happy with where we are at, but when you get to a certain level your expectations get higher, too."

This and that -- The Blue Jackets set a single-game attendance record at Nationwide Arena Thursday when 19,167 showed up for their game against Pittsburgh. Amazingly, the arena seats only 18,144, so they really packed them in for that game. ... The Blackhawks announced Thursday they were freezing season ticket prices for the 2009-10 season, meaning the 2008-09 rates remain in place. The Hawks lead the NHL in attendance, averaging 22,395 per game at the United Center. They've sold out all 30 home games this season. ... Nashville captain and leading goal scorer Jason Arnott sat out Thursday's game against the Rangers with an upper-body injury suffered after getting hit hard by Washington's Shaone Morrisonn on Tuesday night. ... The Blues announced Thursday they signed 2008 second-round pick Philip McRae, the son of former player and current St. Louis scout Basil McRae. Philip entered Friday's action with 60 points in 57 games with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Brett Sonne (third round, 2007) and Anthony Peluso (sixth round, 2007) also signed Thursday. Sonne was third in the Western Hockey League with 97 points in 60 games. He was second with 47 goals. ... Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom played his 800th NHL game Thursday night, and Dan Cleary played in his 600th. The Red Wings lost 6-5 in a shootout after giving away a two-goal lead in a span of 2:02 late in the third period.

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