The Detroit Red Wings are back atop the Central Division after winning two straight from their closest rivals. Now, they will try to start the stretch run to a sixth consecutive division title with a win Friday against the Vancouver Canucks.
The Red Wings (45-17-9) regained the lead in the Central by sweeping Nashville in a home-and-home series, capped by a 4-2 home victory Wednesday in which Jiri Hudler scored two goals.
Despite being the top overall team in the NHL with 99 points, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is not reading too much into favorable first-round matchups with 11 games remaining.
"Is there a team we want to play in the first round?" Babcock asked. "No. They're all too good. In the Western Conference last year, the top four seeds lost in the first round. Well, the West is even closer than it was last year."
As has been the case all season, the Red Wings exerted their dominance in the third period of both games, outscoring the Predators 5-1 in the two victories. Hudler scored both game-winning goals in the sweep in the third period, and Detroit has a league-high 91 goals in the final 20 minutes of games.
"It's not like he just turned the switch," Babcock said. "He's getting better and better. He has a chance because of his heart, skill and ability to be a difference-maker."
The Red Wings, who have a one-point lead and a game in hand on the Predators, are 15-3-3 - including a 6-2-1 road mark - since a three-game losing streak from Jan. 19-26.
Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk had two assists Wednesday. He now has two goals and 13 assists in that span in a nine-game point streak.
Vancouver (42-23-6) has a slim one-point lead over Calgary atop the Northwest Division with 11 games remaining. The Canucks avoided a third consecutive loss with a 3-2 victory Thursday night over St. Louis as Daniel Sedin scored a power-play goal 69 seconds into overtime and Roberto Luongo became the 20th goaltender to record a 40-win season.
"It's nice to get the milestone, but it's really not important at this stage of the season," Luongo said. "Every win for me is about playoff position."
Sedin's power-play goal also ended a drought of nearly five games without man-advantage goal for the Canucks, who failed to convert their previous 20 chances.
"We had a lot of scoring chances," said Daniel Sedin, who had a game-high seven shots and set up twin brother Henrik for the opening goal 1:30 into the second period. "But we just have to stick with it. If you keep shooting, it's going to get in."
Daniel Sedin, who has team highs of 31 goals and 69 points, also has 14 of Vancouver's 60 power-play goals.
The road team has won all three games this season, with the Canucks recording a 4-3 overtime victory at Detroit on Nov. 22 on a goal by Brendan Morrison.