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SB Nation: Why Central Division best in NHL

by James Mirtle
During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, will be presenting selected blogs from SB Nation as part of our deep coverage of the 16 teams vying for sports' most coveted trophy. Here is a sample of one blog, In the Rink, from Toronto-based writer James Mirtle.

Everyone's agog over the NHL's Central Division these days, mainly because all five teams in the division are in the top eight of the Western Conference and playoff-bound going into Wednesday's games. Such a division sweep hasn't happened in 28 years, which is pretty exciting for your average hockey pundit.

A couple points to look at here before I get to the numbers: Yes, the Central is, in fact, the best division in hockey, and no it's not just the Red Wings' dominance skewing things. And two, there's little chance all five teams make it in. What we're really seeing is a quirk in the schedule.

I'll try and address both points here all in one go.

The NHL's revamped its schedule a bit this season, dropping the number of in-division games to six per team from the eight per team we've seen the past three seasons. That's made a five-teams-from-one-division-in-the-playoffs scenario more plausible because there are more points available outside of a strong division for teams to pile up.

By the numbers, what all that means is, this season, each division has 410 games as usual (5 x 82), but only 120 are in-division (29 percent) and the other 290 are played against other divisions in their conference or the other conference entirely. The previous three seasons, inter-division games made up 160 games (39%), which isn't an insignificant difference.

Here are the division point totals for games played outside of the division: Central, 339; Northeast, 308; Atlantic, 305; Pacific, 298; Southeast, 293 and Northwest, 291.

So, Point No. 1, the Central is pretty darn good at beating up on other divisions. Columbus, for example, is 13-3-2 against the Eastern Conference, and the Central is a combined 20-9-3 against the Southeast.

It's not just Detroit, either. The Red Wings have gone 14-5-1 against teams within their own division (a 119-point pace full season) and 35-13-8 against other teams (a 114-point pace). Chicago and Columbus, however, have picked up far more points outside of the Central than against opponents in their division.

The other thing to note is that the Central has so far played the most out-of-division games in the league this season, and therefore has the most inter-divisional games coming up. In fact, 20 per cent of the division's inter-divisional games are sandwiched into these final 13 days of the season.

Here are the games remaining for Central Division teams against Central opponents: Chicago, 7; Columbus, 5; Nashville, 5; Detroit, 4 and St. Louis, 3.

What I expect to see over the next two weeks is that, because the Central teams are playing each other so often (75 per cent of their remaining games), there should be some points left on the table. Columbus, Nashville and St. Louis can't all possibly run the table given they'll be facing one another (plus Detroit and Chicago), and it's likely going to take quite a run to get in.

That's good news for Anaheim, Edmonton and Minnesota.

James Mirtle writes the From The Rink blog for SB Nation.

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