Battle for the Central
This is hard to believe but suddenly, the Central Division is a three-team free-for-all. The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators had been battling for the division crown almost the entire season. However, with both team sputtering, this is allowed a third team to enter the picture.
That’s right. The St. Louis Blues have come from last in the league on January 3rd to challenge for the division lead. St. Louis is currently just two points out of first place. Nashville is now tied with Winnipeg for first place in the division. What does that man when it comes to the futures?
St. Louis is the biggest mover. They were +1000 just two weeks ago and are now at +300. Nashville was +425 at that same time and is now +250. Winnipeg still has the inside trac at -111 but that is a tenuous inside track at best.
The final days likely will bring a few more twists and turns. Winnipeg and St. Louis have four games remaining while Nashville has just three. It is time to map things out when it comes to each team.
Winnipeg Jets (45-29-4 – 43 ROW – 94 points)
Alas, the Jets are the worst among the three teams over the last ten games (5-5). They lost three straight and four of five games in all. Winnipeg yielding 18 goals in that span does not help and suddenly their top line struggled so much that Kyle Connor was moved back up to ignite scoring.
One good piece of news is on the defensive side of things. Dustin Byfuglien returned on Saturday and Josh Morrissey could come back anytime this week. It still does not help that Laurent Brossoit is day to day with a lower body injury. That means Eric Comrie is the backup of Connor Hellebuyck. That cannot make Paul Maurice and Winnipeg feel very comfortable.
Their final week schedule looks like this:
@CHI, @MIN, @COL, and @ARZ
Yes, that is four road games to close the season. The first two games are back to back and yet Hellebuyck is likely to play both contests. Winnipeg controls their own destiny. They win all their games and they capture the division. It is that simple. Winnipeg is 20-17 on the road with a -0.13 goals per game differential. Their biggest keys will be tightening up defensively along with getting that first line going. If they can do both of those things, Winnipeg will be in good hands.
Nashville Predators (44-29-6 – 40 ROW – 94 points)
The Predators need a little help to win the Central. They must outpoint the Jets because of the tiebreaker. They got hammered over the weekend by Columbus after beating Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. The concern with Nashville is they have not quite looked like themselves over the last month or two. They feature one of the league’s worst power plays at 12.9%. Also, their penalty kill has hovered just below 80% during the previous month to six weeks.
Despite this, goaltending has not suffered for the most part. Both Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne keep making enough quality starts to keep the reality of a division title in view. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson continue to lead the way goal-scoring wise. The Predators’ schedule looks like this:
Vs BUF, vs VAN, vs CHI
A homestand to end the season is just what the doctor ordered or so that was thought before Nashville dropped the homestand opener to Columbus 5-2. The good news is that the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks are both below .500. Buffalo has lost seven straight and nine of their last ten games. Vancouver should not scare Nashville too much. Chicago is a real wildcard as they will play their pace no matter what.
St. Louis Blues (42-28-8 – 41 ROW – 92 points)
Finally, the Blues are the team that came out of nowhere and have picked up a few more points in the last ten games even. Part of that is the emergence of Jordan Binnington (21-5-1, 1.85 GAA, .928 save percentage) but most of their run stems from the offense and defense improving at the same time. Players like Vince Dunn have risen to the occasion and delivered an extra scoring punch. Even their power play has crept back above 20%. Ryan O’Reilly and Alex Pietrangelo have been the Blues’ most consistent players.
Vladimir Tarasenko has played much better during the second half as his numbers have almost climbed back to his career averages. Even Jake Allen has seen his numbers improve greatly since the All-Star Break. Granted, he has only started nine games, but he looks like a different goalie. A sub 2.00 goals against average and .931 save percentage tends to help. Here is the Blues and their schedule:
Vs COL, @CHI, vs PHI, vs VAN
St. Louis has a back to back against Chicago and then Philadelphia. Yes, those games are winnable but beware the trap game which may still be Philadelphia. St. Louis needs the most help because they have two teams to pass just to win the division. They must win then hope for help. Again, Chicago is another wildcard in this scenario. Will their pace ruffle St. Louis or will the Blues just dispose of them? Time will answer that question and more.
By Chris Wassel