The NHL Central Division is home to the 2013 Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The champs of last spring are looking every bit the part of a team ready to make another run at glory. With 60 points in the bank, Chicago again has the best record in hockey and has a firm, though not infallible, grip on its division.
St. Louis has endured playoff frustration in recent years, but the Blues remain a well-coached team that’s fundamentally sound and that’s being demonstrated by their second-place showing. The third spot—a crucial benchmark since it’s the last guaranteed playoff berth under the new alignment—belongs to the improved Colorado Avalanche.
The Central Division is the weaker of the two in the West and if the regular season ended today, Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado would be the only three teams in the playoffs. The two floating wild-card spots would go to the Pacific Division. The current benchmark for the final postseason spot is 46 points.
Minnesota is in fourth in the Central and only one point off the playoff pace, while Dallas is also in hot pursuit with 44 points. Winnipeg and Nashville have more work to do, at 39 and 36 points respectively, but neither is hopelessly out of the picture.
The Predators are dealing with an injury to goaltender Pekka Rinne though. Rinne has been out since the first week of November with a bacterial infection and perhaps his anticipated return shortly after the New Year will give Nashville a lift.
Ultimately this division is about Chicago and the weakness of the competition make it likely the Blackhawks will at least maintain their first-place standing and probably hold off all comers out of the Pacific for the #1 seed at playoff time. The fact Chicago has played this well without goaltender Cory Crawford, who has been out since December 10, speaks volumes. Crawford will be back soon. And there’s no question the Blackhawks are back for more.