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NHL Insider looks at the Central's second half

Blackhawks hoping to hold off Stars and Blues down stretch run

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / Staff Writer looks at how each team shapes up entering the stretch run in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

The NHL All-Star break has come and gone, and the 10-week sprint to the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Tuesday. 

Few teams have pulled far enough away from the pack to be looking ahead to the postseason or dropped far enough below it that they're out of contention. Eighteen of the 30 teams are within 10 points of one another; only 10 of those teams will make the playoffs.

Here's a look at how the seven teams in the Central Division shape up entering the race for the postseason: 

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (33-16-4, 70 points, 1st in division, 1st in Western Conference) 

Remaining games: 29 (14 home, 15 away) 

Special teams: Power play 21.5 percent (4th); penalty kill 82.6 percent (9th) 

What's gone right: A 12-game winning streak from Dec. 29 to Jan. 19, tied for the longest in the NHL this season, lifted the defending Stanley Cup champions into first place. Patrick Kane leads the League in goals (30), assists (43) and points (73), with Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars (58 points) his closest pursuer in the Art Ross Trophy race. Artemi Panarin leads all rookies with 17 goals, 29 assists and 46 points. Goalie Corey Crawford leads the League in shutouts (seven), is second in wins (28), fourth in save percentage (.931) and had a 1.40 goals-against average in nine of 10 starts before he was pulled in a 5-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 26. 

What's gone wrong: Chicago showed signs of fatigue following the 12-game run by losing three of its next four, including shutout losses to the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. The Blackhawks are 21-5-1 at United Center, but 12-11-3 on the road with a League-worst minus-25 goal differential. 

Needs: Though the line of Andrew Shaw, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa combined for 14 goals and 17 assists during the Blackhawks' 12-game winning streak, they may still look to add a top-shelf forward and move Shaw on the third or fourth line to provide more secondary scoring. They could also use depth on defense to support the top four of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Gustafsson and Brent Seabrook.

Trophy hopefuls: Kane (Hart, Art Ross), Toews (Selke), Crawford (Vezina), Panarin (Calder), Joel Quenneville (Adams) 

Schedule: The Blackhawks return from the break on a three-game road trip at the improved Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes, and the second-place Stars, an important stretch after they've been outscored 11-1 in their past three games away from United Center. They play the Stars twice in February and March, respectively. Eight road games in March will test Chicago's mettle while it attempts to hold on to first place and make a run at the Presidents' Trophy. 

Outlook: Rest and relaxation could turn out to be what the Blackhawks need to recover from a post-winning streak stumble. The stretch run presents a challenge with the Stars right behind them and the St. Louis Blues getting healthier. 

Video: CGY@DAL: Benn dazzles with stick on way to goal

DALLAS STARS (31-14-5, 67 points, 2nd in division, 2nd in Western Conference) 

Remaining games: 32 (16 home, 16 away) 

Special teams: Power play 21.3 percent (5th); penalty kill 79.9 percent (21st) 

What's gone right: The Stars raced to the top of the NHL standings with the best 21-game start in their history (17-4-0) and are in position to make the playoffs for the second time in eight seasons. Dallas is first in non-shootout goals (160) and second in goals per game (3.20). Jamie Benn's 28 goals are tied with Alex Ovechkin for second in the League, and could exceed his 87-point, Art Ross Trophy-winning output of last season. Benn and Tyler Seguin (25) each rank in the top five in goals and sophomore John Klingberg's 40 points are third among defensemen. The goalie tandem of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen has held down the fort to help trim the Stars' cumulative goals-against average from 3.13 last season to 2.62. 

What's gone wrong: The Stars won 28 of their first 39 games before a 3-6-2 skid in January. The slump coincided with the respective struggles of Benn and Seguin. Benn had 18 goals in his first 24 games but nine in his next 25, Seguin had two goals and three points in 11 January games, and the duo was benched for the final 12:10 of a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers on Jan. 5. Despite the improvement on defense, the Stars are still in the lower half of the League in goals allowed. 

Needs: Help on special teams. Although Dallas' power play is fifth in the League, it was 4-for-35 (11.4 percent) in its past 13 games and allowed two shorthanded goals in a 3-1 loss to the Avalanche on Jan. 23. The Stars are 21st in penalty killing. 

Trophy hopefuls: Jamie Benn (Hart, Richard), Seguin (Richard), Klingberg (Norris), Lindy Ruff (Adams) 

Schedule: Dallas begins a two-game road trip at the Winnipeg Jets following the break before returning home Feb. 6 against Chicago. The Stars play the Blackhawks three times and the Blues twice in games that could determine their final place in the division. 

Outlook: The Stars are playing to capture the best record in the West and have an outside chance at the Presidents' Trophy. Once they're in the playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference Second Round is a reasonable expectation if they can tighten up their defense and if either Niemi or Lehtonen seizes the No. 1 goalie role. 

ST. LOUIS BLUES (28-16-8, 64 points, 3rd in division, 3rd in Western Conference) 

Remaining games: 30 (14 home, 16 away) 

Special teams: Power play 19.6 percent (11th); penalty kill 85.2 percent (3rd) 

What's gone right: Vladimir Tarasenko's 25 goals are tied for third in the League, and he has accounted for 20.3 percent of the Blues' offense. The All-Star forward is on pace to score 40 goals for the first time in his NHL career and Alexander Steen is on target to equal or surpass his 24 goals last season. Goalies Jake Allen and Brian Elliott have combined for the League's seventh-best save percentage (.919); Elliott has a 1.98 GAA and .941 save percentage in nine games since taking over for an injured Allen on Jan. 8. Rookies Robby Fabbri (11 goals) and Colton Parayko (plus-18) have contributed. 

What's gone wrong: The Blues have lost 184 man games to injury, which has forced them to use 40 different lineups through 52 games, and it has taken a toll on the offense. St. Louis is 22nd with 2.42 goals per game, down from the top six the past two seasons at 2.91 per game. Paul Stastny, in the second of a four-year, $28 million contract, missed 16 games with a broken foot and has five goals in 34 games. 

Needs: Though general manager Doug Armstrong will be looking to bolster the offense prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 29, the Blues will be receiving reinforcements after the break. Forward Jaden Schwartz (ankle) hopes to return when the Blues resume their season on Feb. 2, with forwards Magnus Paajarvi (upper body) and Steve Ott (hamstring) not far behind. 
Trophy hopefuls: Tarasenko (Hart, Richard), Parayko, Fabbri (Calder), Ken Hitchcock (Adams) 

Schedule: February provides a chance for the Blues to climb the ladder with five of 13 games against division opponents. Eight road games are on tap in March, including a four-game stretch through Western Canada and at the San Jose Sharks. 

Outlook: The Blues are a Stanley Cup contender when at full strength, but haven't advanced beyond the Western Conference First Round since 2012. Despite missing seven regular players in January, they earned at least a point in nine of 11 games entering the break. Once Allen returns, St. Louis will reunite a goalie tandem that rivals any in the League, which will put it in position to compete with Chicago for the Central title and hope for a longer postseason run. 

COLORADO AVALANCHE (27-22-3, 57 points, 4th in division, 5th in Western Conference) 

Remaining games: 30 (16 home, 14 away) 

Special teams: Power play 19.9 percent (9th); penalty kill 79.8 percent (22nd) 

What's gone right: Since residing in the Central basement at 9-14-1 on Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 18-8-2 and hold the first wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference. Goalie Semyon Varlamov (19-12-3, 2.59 GAA, .918 save percentage) also recovered from a slow start and was named the NHL's First Star of the Week for Jan. 18-24 after going 4-0-0 with an 0.99 GAA and .972 save percentage. Center Carl Soderberg, signed to a five-year, $23.75 million contract over the summer, is third on Colorado in scoring (36 points), and has clicked with linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Blake Comeau, another free-agent addition. The ageless Jarome Iginla has 13 goals and scored NHL goal No. 600 on Jan. 4. Matt Duchene (23-19-42) represented the Avalanche at the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game. Above all, Colorado is 13-3-1 against division opponents. 

What's gone wrong: Goalie Reto Berra, Varlamov's backup to start the season, is 5-8-0 with a 2.41 GAA and .922 save percentage, and on the shelf with an ankle injury. Calvin Pickard and Roman Will combined to allow five goals on 23 shots in a 6-1 loss to the Sharks on Jan. 26. Forward Mikhail Grigorenko, acquired in the trade that sent Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn to the Buffalo Sabres on June 26, 2015, has three goals and 14 points in 44 games. Veteran Alex Tanguay has three goals, one since Oct. 30, and was a healthy scratch in Colorado's final game before the break. 

Needs: Besides help for Varlamov, Colorado must improve its defense, a target before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. 

Trophy hopefuls: Duchene (Richard), Varlamov (Vezina) Patrick Roy (Adams) 

Schedule: The Avalanche return from the break with four straight games at home and seven in February, but will be tested by a four-game Western Canada swing in March. Three of Colorado's final four regular-season games are against Central opponents, which could decide its postseason fate. 

Outlook: A return to the playoffs after missing out last season is there for the taking. The Avalanche's success against the division and the Minnesota Wild's struggles could open the door to the postseason if Varlamov can carry them there while the young core continues to evolve. 

NASHVILLE PREDATORS (24-18-8, 56 points, 5th in division, 7th in Western Conference) 

Remaining games: 32 (18 home, 14 away) 

Special teams: Power play 20.4 percent (8th); penalty kill 79.1 percent (25th) 

What's gone right: Defense keyed Nashville's four straight wins that lifted it into the second wild card into the playoffs from the West. After allowing 3.5 goals during a 2-6-2 stretch, the Predators have surrendered one in each of the four victories. Led by Roman Josi's 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) and Shea Weber's 31 (12-19), Predators defensemen lead the NHL in goals (37) and points (122). Center Ryan Johansen has been a hit since he was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in his first 10 games. 

What's gone wrong: Nashville is 6-10-2 against the Central, better than only Winnipeg (6-12-1). The Predators are seeking a fit at left wing alongside Johansen and James Neal to bump their goals per game from 2.50, 18th in the League. Despite killing off 25 of opponents' past 26 power plays, Nashville is 25th in penalty-killing percentage.

Needs: Nashville would still like to add to its offense even after acquiring Johansen. Internally, the return of Colin Wilson, out since Jan. 8 with a lower-body injury, will help, though Wilson has regressed from a 20-goal season in 2014-15. 

Trophy hopefuls: Josi, Weber (Norris) 

Schedule: Nashville begins February with a four-game homestand, including litmus tests against the Sharks and Washington Capitals, two of the hottest teams in the NHL. The Predators will be challenged in March, which is loaded with eight games away from Bridgestone Arena and three back-to-back sets. 

Outlook: The Predators will be in a fight for a wild card out of the West with not only the Wild and Avalanche, but the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks, each of whom trails Nashville by five points. Johansen could be the X-factor that gets Nashville over the top. 

Video: ARI@MIN: Dubnyk raises his glove to deny Tikhonov

MINNESOTA WILD (23-17-9, 55 points, 6th in division, 8th in Western Conference) 

Remaining games: 33 (16 home, 17 away) 

Special teams: Power play 17.1 percent (23rd); penalty kill 80.0 percent (20th) 

What's gone right: Minnesota is one of the League's best defensive teams (2.31 goals against per game, 6th) and the best since Dec. 1 (1.93). Forward Charlie Coyle scored in three straight games entering the break to establish a career high of 13 goals after scoring 11 in 82 games last season. Goalie Devan Dubnyk (18-15-5, 2.23 GAA, .922 save percentage, four shutouts) played in his first NHL All-Star Game. Darcy Kuemper (5-2-4, 2.10 GAA, .926 save percentage, two shutouts) has been a capable backup. 

What's gone wrong: A lot since New Year's Eve. Minnesota has 16 goals in its past 10 games (2-6-2), and dropped from 20-10-6 and four points out of second place to 15 behind the Blackhawks and outside of the playoff picture. The Wild entered the break losers of seven of their past eight and 10 of 13 in January while going 0-3-2 at Xcel Energy Center, where they have one goal in the past six periods and three in the past 12. They also allowed the game-tying goal with less than seven minutes to play in each of their past three losses. 

Needs: Offense. If general manager Chuck Fletcher can't make a move for a sniper prior to the trade deadline, the answers will have to come from within. Mikael Granlund has an empty-net goal in 30 games. Jason Pominville has one assist since Dec. 22 and is on pace for an NHL career-low eight goals. Mikko Koivu leads the Wild with 35 points but has no goals since scoring twice Dec. 28. A lot more is needed from Thomas Vanek (two goals, one assist in January), Nino Niederreiter (no goals since Dec. 31) and Jason Zucker (two goals since Dec. 26). 

Trophy hopefuls: Ryan Suter (Norris) 

Schedule: Minnesota enters a brutal stretch after the break with a three-game road trip at the New York Islanders, Rangers and Blues before home games against the Stars and the NHL-leading Capitals. A three-game swing through Western Canada also awaits the Wild in mid-February. 

Outlook: The Wild need a run similar to last season, when they went 28-8-2 following the break to capture one of the wild cards into the playoffs from the West. Just making the postseason will be a challenge in a competitive conference that has five teams competing for two spots. 

WINNIPEG JETS (22-24-3, 47 points, 7th in division, 12th in Western Conference) 

Remaining games: 33 (17 home, 16 away) 

Special teams: Power play 15.9 percent (28th); penalty kill 77.2 percent (27th) 
What's gone right: Rookie forward Nikolaj Ehlers scored seven goals and 10 points in January, including his first NHL hat trick Jan. 26 against the Coyotes. A line of Ehlers, center Mark Scheifele and right wing Blake Wheeler clicked instantly since debuting at practice Jan. 24 and sparked an offense that scored four goals in its prior four games. Rookie Connor Hellebuyck (12-9-1, 2.10 GAA, .927 save percentage) has started 10 straight games and 19 of 21 to emerge as the Jets' No. 1 goalie, even with Ondrej Pavelec working his way back from a knee injury. Wheeler's 48 points (13 goals, 35 assists) are tied for sixth in the League. All-Star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien has 14 goals and 29 points. 

What's gone wrong: The not-so-special teams. Winnipeg's power play and penalty kill are each near the bottom of the League. The PK unit didn't allow a goal in the win against the Coyotes for the first time in four games and second in the past eight. Byfuglien's presence up front on the power play provided hope; the Jets scored two goals in three chances since the move after failing to convert on their previous eight. 
Needs: Besides help on special teams, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has decisions to make. He made a bold move last season when he sent forward Evander Kane and defenseman Zach Bogosian to the Sabres for a package that included defenseman Tyler Myers, forward Drew Stafford, two prospects and a first-round pick. This season, Cheveldayoff will have to figure out what to do with pending unrestricted free agents Byfuglien and captain Andrew Ladd, and restricted free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba. It's clear the Jets need a jolt, but could end up in sell mode prior to 3 p.m. on Feb. 29. 

Trophy hopefuls: Ehlers, Hellebuyck (Calder) 

Schedule: The Jets end a six-game homestand after the break against the Stars and Hurricanes. Their February schedule includes three against Dallas (two at MTS Centre). A 10-game home slate in March gives Winnipeg its best chance to climb back into the race depending on where it stands and what it does prior to the trade deadline. 

Outlook: The Jets were thrilled to enter the break on a positive note by ending a three-game losing streak. Ahead of them is a nine-point deficit with three teams to clear in the playoff chase. If you're a Jets fan in search of hope, look no further than the Ottawa Senators' run last season from 14 points out to the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

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