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Skate Around The Central

by Brooks Bratten / Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators are facing some tough competition within their own division. Just over two months into the season, here's a look at how the rest of the Central is faring thus far...

Chicago Blackhawks:

Overall Record: 20-8-1, 41 Points; 1st in the Central; 2-1-0 vs. Nashville

Leading Scorer: Patrick Kane, 27 Points (13g-14a)

Injuries: Jonathan Toews (Undisclosed), Corey Crawford (lower-body), Trevor van Riemsdyk (lower-body, approx. 2-3 months)

Things are tight at the top of the Central Division, and the Blackhawks find themselves ahead of the competition by just one point, thanks to a current eight-game winning streak. Chicago has outscored their opponents 27-13 during that span, including a 3-1 win over Nashville on Dec. 6. The Hawks now appear to be finding their form and are likely to contend at or near the top of the Central for the remainder of 2014-15.

Not surprisingly, winger Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks in scoring, but it’s the offensive contributions throughout the lineup that play a large part in the Windy City success. Twelve skaters on Chicago’s roster have 10 or more points to their names through 29 games, including Kris Versteeg (23 points), Jonathan Toews (23 points) and Marian Hossa (20 points). Toews left Chicago’s game on Thursday against Boston after a hard hit into the end boards and could miss some time. If that is indeed the case, don’t expect Chicago to falter much, even with the potential absence of their captain.

One of the best defensive pairings in the League, Duncan Keith (18 points) and Brent Seabrook (15 points) continue their consistent combination of contributing on offense while shutting down the opposition’s top forwards. Former Predators farmhand Scott Darling has stepped up in net with the recent injury to No. 1 netminder Corey Crawford, going 5-1 in his six starts this season.

Having already met three times this season, the Blackhawks and Preds get together just once more on the campaign with an outing on Dec. 29 in Chicago.

St. Louis Blues:

Overall Record: 19-8-2, 40 Points; 3rd in the Central; 1-2-0 vs. Nashville

Leading Scorer: Vladimir Tarasenko, 31 Points (17g-14a)

Injuries: Brian Elliott (sprained knee, injured reserve), Carl Gunnarsson (upper-body, injured reserve)

The Blues have played one more game than the Preds, earning one more loss than their counterparts in Nashville thus far, but the point totals are identical. Like the Blackhawks, St. Louis has proven to be some of the toughest divisional competition for the Predators this season. The Blues have won three in a row and are 7-2-1 in their last 10 contests.

Vladimir Tarasenko started off the season at a torrid pace and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing. The 22-year-old Russian forward is tied for third in the League in goals with 17 and carries a plus/minus rating of plus-18, good for second in the NHL, trailing only the Preds Filip Forsberg in the category. Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz have both seen time on a line with Tarasenko and each have 24 points to their name.

Perhaps one of the biggest stories of the season has also come out of St. Louis. The NHL’s all-time leader in wins, Martin Brodeur, signed with the Blues earlier in the month, making his first start for a club other than New Jersey in his career. That start just happened to be against Nashville, with the Preds defeating Brodeur and the Blues 4-3 on Dec. 4. At age 42, Brodeur isn’t likely to be competing for League honors with his numbers, but with a 2-1 record to begin his time with the Blues, he can still be depended on to make a timely save more often than not.

All three of the meetings between the Preds and Blues this season have been decided by just one goal, with Nashville coming away with two of those victories. Similar to Chicago, the Predators schedule with St. Louis wraps up somewhat early, with one game at the end of December, the other coming in January.

Winnipeg Jets:

Overall Record: 15-9-6, 36 Points; 4th in Central; 1-2-0 vs. Nashville

Leading Scorer: Andrew Ladd, 23 Points (11g-12a)

Injuries: Toby Enstrom (lower-body, injured reserve), Grant Clitsome (lower-body, injured reserve), Zach Bogosian (lower-body, injured reserve)

Another club that the Predators have become familiar with in 2014-15, the Jets find themselves fourth in the division, but just four points behind Nashville and St. Louis. Winnipeg has gone 5-2-3 in their last 10 and 1-2-0 against the Preds this season.

Jets Captain Andrew Ladd leads the club with 23 points, while Blake Wheeler (22) and Bryan Little (20) are right behind. Dustin Byfuglien, who has alternated from the wing to defense and back throughout his career, has been skating up front for the Jets, potting seven goals and 15 points to go along with 53 penalty minutes. With 10 players tallying over 20 penalty minutes, the Jets are the most penalized team in the League, averaging 15 minutes per game.

Ondrej Pavelec has gotten a majority of starts in net for the Jets, sporting a 9-8-4 record, but backup Michael Hutchinson has been impressive when called upon. In 10 games played, Hutchinson has gone 6-1-2 with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Although he’s only seen action in 10 contests, Hutchinson’s 1.67 and .941 marks are both tops in the NHL.

The Jets are scheduled to make two more trips to Nashville this season, one on Feb. 12, the other on March 7. The Predators have a narrow margin in the three games with Winnipeg thus far, outscoring the Jets 5-4.

Minnesota Wild:

Overall Record: 15-11-1, 31 Points; 5th in Central; 0-0-0 vs. Nashville

Leading Scorer: Zach Parise, 22 Points (10g-12a)

Injuries: Matt Cooke (lower-body, injured reserve), Keith Ballard (concussion, facial fractures, day-to-day)

The only Central Division club that has yet to skate against Nashville, the Wild sit fifth in the division, winning 15 of their 27 games to this point. Minnesota is 5-4-1 in their last 10 outings, alternating wins and losses with their competition dating back to Nov. 20. The power play has struggled for the Wild this season, converting at just 11.2 percent.

Zach Parise leads the team in points with 22, despite missing five games earlier this season due to injury. Nino Niederreiter paces the Wild with 12 goals, while former Preds defenseman Ryan Suter is tied for third on the club with 16 points.

Darcy Kuemper has started 20 games for the Wild, going 11-9-0. He’s also posted three shutouts, good for a third place tie among League netminders in the category, including Preds goaltender Pekka Rinne.

The Wild and Preds will finally face off in 2014-15 in due time, with the first game between the two coming on Dec. 20 in St. Paul. The two will then get together four more times before the season is out, including an April 9 matchup in Nashville, the regular season home finale for the Predators.

Colorado Avalanche:

Overall Record: 10-13-6, 26 Points; 6th in Central; 0-1-0 vs. Nashville

Leading Scorer: Matt Duchene, 20 Points (10g-10a), Tyson Barrie, 20 Points (3g-17a)

Injuries: Patrick Bordeleau (back surgery, injured reserve), Jesse Winchester (concussion, injured reserve), Ryan Wilson (shoulder, injured reserve), Brad Stuart (hamstring, injured reserve), Jamie McGinn (back, injured reserve), John Mitchell (leg, injured reserve), Ben Street (hand, injured reserve), Semyon Varlamov (groin, day-to-day)

One of just two teams in the Central that have a losing record, Colorado has been decimated with injuries in the early portions of the season. The Avs won just once in their first seven games to start the season and haven’t been able to consistently string together victories. Colorado won in a shootout on Thursday, but fell to the Preds on Tuesday, making their fourth-straight loss at the time, going 4-5-1 in their last 10 contests.

Forward Matt Duchene and defenseman Tyson Barrie are tied for the team lead in points with 20 apiece, with forwards Alex Tanguay, Jarome Iginla, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly right behind in the team points race. While the top-six forwards have managed to stay healthy, Colorado’s bottom two lines have struggled at times to consistently ice healthy bodies.

Goaltender Semyon Varlamov has also dealt with injuries, leaving Reto Berra and Calvin Pickard to tend the net at times. Pickard has started six games for the Avs, winning four games to go along with a .926 save percentage.

The Predators and Avalanche will see each other four more times before the season is out, including a home-and-home series on Jan. 27 and 30.

Dallas Stars:

Overall Record: 10-13-5, 25 Points; 7th in Central; 0-2-0 vs. Nashville

Leading Scorer: Tyler Seguin, 36 Points (22g-14a)

Injuries: Rich Peverly (heart issues, injured reserve), Patrik Nemeth (arm, injured reserve), Valeri Nichushkin (groin, injured reserve), Patrick Eaves (lower-body, injured reserve)

With one less point than sixth-place Colorado, Dallas currently sits at the bottom of the Central Division. While there are still approximately four months remaining in the regular season, things aren’t shining in the Stars favor. Only two NHL clubs, Carolina and Edmonton, have tallied less than 10 wins so far this season.

Despite their current standing, the Stars employ the League’s leading goal-scorer and point-getter in Tyler Seguin. The 22-year-old ranks first in goals (22), points (36) and is tied with the Preds Filip Forsberg, among others, for the NHL lead in game-winning goals with four. Forwards Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza boast 26 and 22 points, respectively, but the point totals across the lineup thin out after that.

Kari Lehtonen has started 23 games for the Stars this season, collecting all 10 of the club’s wins. Former Predators netminder Anders Lindback has had issues in the backup role, carrying a 0-5-0 record with a 4.63 goals-against average and a .861 save percentage.

Nashville has defeated Dallas twice this season and will have three more opportunities to do so before the campaign is out. Two of those meetings come in the month of April, including a contest in Dallas on April 11, the final day of the regular season.

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