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Central Intelligence: Down the Stretch They Come

With division teams competing for playoff positioning, a quick look at what the Central contenders have left

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- With the NHL's regular season winding down, the race for positioning inside the Central Division is heating up.

Two clubs, Chicago and Minnesota, are virtual locks to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Two others, Nashville and St. Louis, are in strong positions to also appear in the postseason.

Winnipeg and Dallas, while not mathematically eliminated, are likely to miss the playoffs, while Colorado is nearing the end of a tough campaign that is, in all likelihood, going to see the Avalanche finish with the fewest points in the League.

With just over three weeks remaining before the playoffs begin, here's a look at where the contenders in the Central stand and what they have left:

Chicago Blackhawks (45-20-5), 95 points

Status: Division championship contender

Lately: As they do, the Blackhawks appear to be ramping things up just in time for the postseason. After going 9-1-0 in the month of February, Chicago has kept rolling in March, beginning the month with a 6-2-0 record and leapfrogging Minnesota for the top spot in the Central Division.

What's ahead: The Blackhawks finish a Canadian trip Saturday in Toronto before returning home for three very winnable games against Colorado, Vancouver and Dallas. A three-game trip with games against Florida and Tampa Bay on the front end follows. After that, Chicago's remaining schedule becomes quite difficult, with a road game at Pittsburgh and home game against Columbus closing out the month of March. The Hawks' home finale comes April 2 against Boston before Chicago finishes the regular season with a three-game road trip against Colorado, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

Minnesota Wild (43-20-6), 92 points

Status: Division championship contender

Lately: The Wild has been inconsistent after returning from its bye week late last month, posting a 4-6-0 record since Feb. 27. During that stretch, Minnesota has lost back-to-back games in regulation twice, something it did just once in the first five months of the season. It's been a grind for the Wild, and it will continue to be, as Minnesota is in the midst of a span of 35 days in which it will play its final 20 games of the regular season.

What's ahead: While Minnesota's schedule is significantly harder than Chicago's in the immediate future, the Wild should have an easier time over the final week of the regular season if it can stay near its current position. The Wild plays back-to-back games each weekend between now and the end of the season, each one some combination of a home-road test. The New York Rangers come to St. Paul Saturday before the Wild's final trip to Winnipeg on Sunday. A lengthy home stretch follows, with five of the Wild's next six hosted by Xcel Energy Center, including games against San Jose, Philadelphia and Vancouver before a quick Sunday trip to Detroit on March 26. Home dates against Washington and Ottawa close out the month before a one-game trip to Nashville on April 1. While nothing will be given to the Wild, its final four games against Colorado (one at home, one on the road), Carolina and Arizona should provide it with an opportunity to make hay over the final week.

Nashville Predators (35-24-11), 81 points

Status: Central Division No. 3, Western Conference wild card

Lately: After returning from their bye week in mid-February with a 5-2 loss at Xcel Energy Center, the Predators closed the month strong, winning five of their final six games in February and earning a point in their only loss. The stretch vaulted the Predators comfortably into third place in the division. But four straight losses to begin the month of March, combined with a resurgence from the Blues, have put the Predators in a position where they will likely be battling with St. Louis for the No. 3 position in the Central -- and an opportunity to play whichever club doesn't win the division -- until the very end.

What's ahead: The bulk of Nashville's schedule the rest of the way is meaty. Winnable games against Carolina on Saturday and Arizona on Monday are combined with two road games to end the season at Dallas and Winnipeg. The eight games in between are a gauntlet: all are against teams either inside the postseason cutoff or battling for their playoff lives. Home games against Calgary and San Jose, the two best teams in the Pacific Division, begin the stretch, before a set of back-to-back games in Brooklyn and Boston and a home game against Toronto wrap the month of March. Minnesota visits Music City on April 1 before the Preds' crucial road contest in St. Louis the next afternoon. Another game against the Islanders wraps the home schedule and the hectic eight-game stretch that could make or break the Preds' season.

St. Louis Blues (37-28-5), 79 points

Status: Central Division No. 3, Western Conference wild card

Lately: The Blues have been consistently inconsistent since mid-February, stringing together a six-game winning streak followed by a five-game losing streak and, most recently, a five-game winning streak that was snapped on Wednesday when St. Louis lost 2-1 in Anaheim. 

What's ahead: The Blues have the benefit, at least on paper, of perhaps the easiest remaining schedule in the NHL. Of their 12 remaining games, only two come against teams in the playoff mix. All three of St. Louis' games against the Arizona Coyotes, the last-place Pacific team, will be played over the next 12 days. St. Louis also has three games remaining against Colorado. The games against the Coyotes and Avalanche account for half of the Blues' remaining schedule. Home games against Vancouver and Winnipeg also remain, as do road contests against Florida and Carolina. Both games against current playoff teams will be played at Scottrade Center: against Calgary on March 25 and Nashville on April 2. Another thing to keep in mind: St. Louis has zero back-to-back sets the rest of the way, which will offer the Blues plenty of opportunities to get healthy both on the ice and in the standings before the postseason begins.

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