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Playoff race primer: Central Division

Wild, Blackhawks in heated battle for first place

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

With the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs five weeks away, NHL.com is taking a division-by-division look at the race for the coveted spots in the postseason. Here is how the Central Division stacks up:

The first seven weeks of the season brought few surprises in the Central Division, with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues running 1-2.

Then, the Minnesota Wild turned the division on its ear, staring a franchise-record 12-game winning streak on Dec. 2, going from tied for third to first place.

They haven't stopped; the Wild's 32-8-3 record is the League's best since the start of that win streak. Still, they haven't been able to distance themselves from the Blackhawks, who have been steady, giving the Central two teams clearly a cut above the rest.

 

Minnesota Wild

Record: 42-16-6 (90 points)

Where They Stand: First place in the division and Western Conference. They lead the Blackhawks by one point, and have played one fewer game.

What's left: 18 games: 10 on the road and eight at home.

3 Key Games: March 12, at Blackhawks. Any playoff road likely goes through Chicago. March 21 vs. San Jose Sharks. Defeated the Pacific Division's top team March 5 at home; a potential Western Conference Final. March 28 vs. Washington Capitals. The Wild have two games remaining against Washington (the other is March 14), the top team in the League.

Key injuries: None.

Player to Watch: Eric Staal. The 32-year-old has 48 games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience, but has played five postseason games in the past seven seasons. Staal has been a great fit in Minnesota and his effectiveness is quite possibly the element that can help the Wild go far in the playoffs.

The outlook:  The Wild have a demanding March -- 15 games in 26 days -- and then a finish that appears less stressful. Minnesota's final four games are against the Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, at the Avalanche and at the Arizona Coyotes. The Wild appear to be a legitimate threat heading into their fifth straight playoff appearance.

Video: Wild analyst Greenlay on Dubnyk, Staal

 

Chicago Blackhawks

Record: 42-18-5 (89 points)

Where They Stand: Second in the division and conference. They lead the third-place Nashville Predators by 15 points.

What's left: 17 games: 10 on the road, seven in the Eastern time zone, one in the Mountain and two in the Pacific, and seven at home.

3 Key Games: March 12 vs. Wild. Top spot in the division is likely on the line. April 6 at Anaheim Ducks. Playoff seeding in the Pacific Division is likely to go down to the wire and Chicago, though comfortably in the playoffs, may need the points to finish first in the Central. April 8 at Los Angeles Kings. The regular-season finale is between teams that have won five of the past seven Stanley Cup championships.

Key injuries: D Niklas Hjalmarsson has missed four games. He is listed as day-to-day because of an upper-body injury.

Player to Watch: Jonathan Toews. The captain has been an impact player in the second half. He led the League with 18 points in 10 games in February and was named the NHL's First Star of the month. Toews has had eight multipoint games since Jan. 22 and his 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 17 games is the most in the NHL since that date.

The outlook: Chicago has taken a run at first place by winning six in a row and 11 of its past 12. That challenge to Minnesota sets up a great finish and real intrigue for the playoffs, given that the Blackhawks have eliminated the Wild from the playoffs the past three times they have played each other (2013, 2014, 2015).

Video: CHI@NSH: Toews buries a loose puck on power play

 

Nashville Predators

Record: 32-24-10 (74 points)

Where They Stand: Third in the division. They have a three-point lead on the fourth-place St. Louis Blues.

What's left: 16 games: nine on the road and seven at home. Five of the Predators' remaining games are against Central teams.

3 Key Games: March 13 vs. Winnipeg Jets. A division game the Predators need if they want to keep a comfortable cushion as the third-place team in the Central. April 1 vs. Wild. Minnesota has set a standard of excellence in the division; can the Predators match it late in the season? April 2 at Blues. Could be a make-or-break game for St. Louis.

Key injuries: RW Mikka Salomaki has been limited to 20 games this season because of a variety of injuries. His latest (lower body) has kept him out since Dec. 13 but he's been sent for a conditioning stint with Milwaukee of the American Hockey League, so his return may not be too far away.

Player to Watch: Pekka Rinne. The play of Nashville's No. 1 goalie will be crucial. The Predators have reconfigured several key spots in the past 18 months, including the addition of defenseman P.K. Subban and have played well in spurts. An experienced goalie at the top of his game would make a major difference in the postseason.

The outlook: The Predators have had their share of injuries, a significant 185 man-games lost as of Saturday. But that does not completely explain their inconsistent stretches. Nashville would appear to have upside if key players such as Subban, D Roman Josi, RW James Neal, C Ryan Johansen and LW Filip Forsberg are playing well. If that's the case, the Predators could be the Central's dark-horse team.

Video: NSH@ANA: Rinne makes a huge save on Vatanen in close

 

St. Louis Blues

Record: 33-27-5 (71 points)

Where They Stand: Fourth place in the division, three points behind the Predators and three points ahead of the Kings for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference after games Tuesday.

What's left: 17 games: nine on the road and eight at home. They have three games each against the Avalanche and Coyotes, who will not make the playoffs.

3 Key Games: March 13 at Kings. The Blues and Kings are neck-and-neck in the wild card race. March 25 vs. Calgary Flames. The Flames are five points ahead of the Blues for the first wild card. April 4 vs. Winnipeg Jets. Against a divisional rival hot on their heels in March, the Blues may need this one to secure a playoff berth.

Key injuries: C Robby Fabbri is out for the season after sustaining a left knee injury Feb. 4.

Player to Watch: Vladimir Tarasenko. The right wing is the Blues' leading scorer with 57 points (29 goals, 28 assists), but his production has sagged for stretches this season. Tarasenko has had goal droughts of seven and eight games, but his remarkable shot, spark and danger factor drives a lot of other elements in the Blues attack.

The outlook: After dealing D Kevin Shattenkirk to the Capitals prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, many expected the Blues to sag. But St. Louis remains in the playoff chase, and even though it's a compressed schedule (17 games in the final 31 days of the season starting on Friday), it shouldn't have any excuses at the finish line.

Video: STL@MIN: Tarasenko buries Schwartz's no-look feed

 

Winnipeg Jets

Record: 30-31-6 (66 points)

Where They Stand: The Jets are fifth in the division, five points behind fourth-place St. Louis and eight back of the third-place Nashville.

What's left: 15 games: eight at home and seven on the road.

3 Key Games: March 13 at Predators. If the Jets are trying to stay in the race, getting points from teams ahead of them is key. March 23 at Los Angeles. Given the Kings are in the battle for a wild card, desperation could be part of this game story. April 4 at Blues. Another key game for the Jets is on the road and against a division rival. Winnipeg's record against Central teams this season is 16-8-1.

Key injuries: D Tyler Myers has been out because of a lower-body injury. He hasn't played since Nov. 11 at the Colorado Avalanche, the only game this season the Jets have dressed their top six defensemen. G Ondrej Pavelec is out at least three weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee.

Player to Watch: Connor Hellebuyck. It's easy to watch C Mark Scheifele, RW Patrik Laine and LW Nikolaj Ehlers, given their increasing chemistry and production, but goaltending is always critical. Hellebuyck has had an inconsistent season, and because of Pavelec's injury, there no veteran to fall back on.

The outlook: Winnipeg's defensive and goaltending woes - 208 goals against, fourth-most in the League - have sabotaged its chances to get into a playoff position. But with 15 games to go, the Jets are still within striking distance. Pulling that off almost certainly means they must change that defensive story in a very short span.

Video: COL@WPG: Hellebuyck smothers Duchene's shot

 

Dallas Stars

Record: 27-29-10 (64 points)

Where They Stand: Sixth place, seven points behind fourth-place St. Louis and 10 behind third-place Nashville.

What's left: 16 games: 10 on the road and six at home.

3 Key Games: March 8 vs. Ottawa Senators. Dallas needs momentum, so a home win Wednesday would be a good place to start before beginning a four-game road trip. March 17 at Calgary. This is the second night of a back-to-back against a team ahead in the standings. March 23 at Chicago. Not an easy task when you are fighting for your playoff life.

Key injuries: RW Adam Cracknell is out 3-6 weeks with a lower-body injury sustained Feb. 18; LW Antoine Roussel is out 6-8 weeks with a hand injury sustained March 2; C Mattias Janmark has not played this season after surgery to repair a knee injury.

Player to Watch: Esa Lindell. As the Stars wind down the season and search for a way back to the top of the division, they'll be trying to identify players with more and/or better to give. The rookie defenseman has averaged 21:29 of ice time in 56 games this season, and will warrant a greater role in the future.

The outlook: Dallas has too far to go and too many teams to pass to reach the postseason. The falling Stars, who won the Central last season, were never unable to overcome injuries (276 man-games through Monday) and shaky defense and goaltending that have allowed 208 goals this season.

Video: CAR@DAL: Lindell scores on great individual effort

 

Colorado Avalanche

Record: 17-44-3 (37 points)

Where They Stand: Seventh in the division.

What's left: 17 games: nine at home and eight on the road.

3 Key Games: March 19 at Chicago. April 6 vs. Minnesota. April 9 at St. Louis. Pride and a chance to play the spoiler are about all the Avalanche have left for this season. The three games are all opportunities to impact the division standings.

Key injuries: G Semyon Varlamov has been out because of a groin/hip injury since Jan. 19. D Nikita Zadorov (ankle) has been out since Feb. 21.

Player to Watch: Mikko Rantanen. The rookie right wing offers some encouragement for the future. He has 14 goals and 16 assists this season and has put much validation in being the No. 10 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

The outlook: The Avalanche have nowhere to go in the standings and will almost certainly have the greatest odds in the NHL Draft Lottery for the No. 1 pick for the 2017 NHL Draft. All that's left this season is to disrupt playoff-bound teams and to evaluate what should happen in the offseason.

Video: LAK@COL: Rantanen steals puck, scores on breakaway

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