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First month has all five Central teams in playoffs

by John Manasso
NASHVILLE -- Seeing as Halloween loomed just a few days away, Predators coach Barry Trotz's use of metaphor could not have been any more appropriate.

Trotz was discussing how his team had gotten off to a hot start and how useful that would be in trying to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially since, in his words, "I mean, the Central Division's going to be a horror show in terms of the number of tough teams."

Trotz's words could not have proved more prophetic. The Predators went from having the best record in the NHL entering Thursday's game against divisional foe St. Louis to ranking fourth in the division following the completion of Saturday's games.

"If you have a bad week in the West, especially in the Central Division," Trotz said, "you could fall right out."

As the first month of the season ended, all five Central Division teams sit in the top seven in the Western Conference standings. The Central also is home to two of the last three Stanley Cup winners, including 2010 champion Chicago, and the division has sent the conference's representative to the Cup Final each of the last three seasons.

"It's definitely the best division in the League from top to bottom," Predators General Manager David Poile said. "It's been that way the last couple of years. Detroit is perennially winning the Cup or predicted to win the Cup. Chicago did win the Cup. St. Louis has been on the cusp and I think everybody realizes St. Louis is a good club and they're showing that by their start.

"We've been pretty consistent in the last four or five of years as one of the better clubs in the NHL, so it's good for the fans in the Central Division, I'll tell you that."

Even Columbus, which owns only one playoff appearance in its history since entering the League in 2000-01, is off to a strong start, going 6-4-0.

St. Louis is perhaps the best indicator of how difficult the division has been over the last few seasons. After going through a rebuilding phase, the Blues made the playoffs in 2008-09. They missed it last season, but had a better regular-season record than both of the eventual Eastern Conference finalists.

This season, with the addition of goalie Jaroslav Halak and the continued maturation of some top young players, the Blues, with 14 points in nine games, boast the highest points-per-game average in the NHL at 1.56.

"Well, that's just the reality of it -- we are where we are," Blues captain Eric Brewer said of missing the playoffs last season. "You get off to a slow start and you look around a little bit and wonder why. We know what to expect. It always takes 95 points in the Western Conference -- 93, 94, 95 points.

"That's what it is and has been for a long, long time. There's no surprise there."

For years, Central teams have had to chase the gold standard of NHL franchises in the Red Wings. After ending the League's longest drought without a Cup in 1997, the Red Wings have won three more since then -- the most in the NHL during that time period.

As expansion franchises like Nashville and Columbus matured, the Blackhawks awoke from a long competitive slumber and caught and then surpassed the Red Wings last season.

Trotz said he is glad to have such standard bearers in the same division.

"I always used to tell people as an expansion team, I'm glad we play the Detroit Red Wings eight times a year," he said of the days of the League's former scheduling format. "People are going, 'Are you crazy?' I'm going, 'No, they make us better. They force us to be better.'"

Blued coach Davis Payne agreed.

"I feel that when you match up against Chicago, Detroit, Nashville -- playoff teams -- you got ourselves who are trying to get in that mix; Columbus is off to a very good start, as well -- you can make a very strong case for that," he said of the Central as the NHL’s best. “Bottom line is, eight get in, seven don't. Regardless of how strong your division is and how tough the conference is … you've got to meet that standard.

"For us, we look at it as a good thing. It forces us to get better and it forces us to get better in a hurry. If we want to get in, if we want to compete, if we want to do more than take a look around in the playoff situation, then we've got to be a better team right now. And Nashville forces us to do that, as does the rest of them."

Under the former scheduling format, it virtually was impossible for a division to get all of its teams in the playoffs because of all of the head-to-head matchups that had teams knocking each other off. Over the last two seasons, two divisions in the East -- the Atlantic in 2008-09 and the Northeast last season -- sent four teams.

Whether the Central is the first to send all five to the postseason remains to be seen, but don't be surprised if another Cup finalist comes from the Central. Or Cup winner.

"We'll hope," said Predators veteran forward J-P Dumont, "for one more this year."

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