NHL to SEATTLE

Wild Wild West – The Central Compresses

When we last talked about the Central Division in this space two weeks ago, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion which teams would end up in the top three spots upon completion of the regular season. Winnipeg and Nashville were continuing to stand in a class of their own, and the St. Louis Blues—then the hottest team in hockey—were distancing themselves from the mess that is the Western Conference wild card race under interim coach Craig Berube. 

Well, the top two spots are still held by Nashville and Winnipeg (the Predators now lead the division, though the Jets have three games in hand), and St. Louis remains in the third spot. But that’s where the “foregone conclusion” thing has taken a bit of hit.

The Blues—who held a six-point lead over Dallas and a nine-point lead over Minnesota two weeks ago—saw their cushion for the all-important third spot in the division whittled down to a measly one point over the Stars and two points over the Wild. They did, however, come up with a huge late-game rally on Wednesday to beat the Ducks and extend their lead over Dallas back to three points. 

Everyone from the Blues down in the Central, with the exception of Chicago, has a chance of either making the playoffs or being eliminated in heartbreaking fashion.

Let’s take a look at those other three Central teams that are jockeying with one another to each try to squeeze themselves into a crowded playoff picture. 

DALLAS STARS

Of the many Western Conference teams duking it out for a wild card spot, the Stars feel like the safe money bet to make the playoffs. Based on how things have unfolded this season and the amount of star power Dallas has with guys like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov, Miro Heiskanen, and John Klingberg, on paper this team should absolutely find its way into the postseason. But this is a club that faded badly at the end of ’17-’18, causing it to miss the playoffs for the second year in a row and cut ties with coach Ken Hitchcock. Though they’ve played well of late, the Stars are still in danger of missing the dance for a third straight year. 

At the trade deadline, which passed last Monday, the Stars may have had the worst luck of any team in the league. They made a huge splash to bring in slick scorer Mats Zuccarello from the Rangers, a nice move that should have really helped Dallas. But Zuccarello played two periods of hockey under the “Big D” crest before breaking his arm, putting him out for about four weeks. Reports indicate that Zuccarello is progressing nicely, so he may return in time to help the Stars in their chase for the playoffs. Still, a second- and third-round draft pick is a steep price for very little service if this team misses the postseason, and Zuccarello ends up signing elsewhere.

The Stars have won three in a row, with victories over Los Angeles, St. Louis, and New York. Benn scored a hat trick against the Blues, and Ben Bishop stopped all 28 of the shots he faced against the Rangers. 

Injury Report: 

MINNESOTA WILD

Ah, my beloved Minnesota Wild!

What a weird season it has been for Bruce Boudreau’s squad, which has very much been in flux with new GM Paul Fenton now calling the shots. After hiring Fenton to replace Chuck Fletcher, team owner Craig Leipold made it clear that he was excited to be bringing somebody in who didn’t have a deep connection with the core of the team. That core had made the playoffs six years in a row, but never advanced beyond the second round. 

In the early going, Fenton was very cautious in his approach, only adding and subtracting perimeter players. The team got hot for a while, but lost Matt Dumba (probably for the rest of the year) and Mikko Koivu (definitely for the rest of the year), and then went dead cold after the All-Star break. An extended stretch of terrible play led to Fenton opting to dismantle the aforementioned core. Out went guys like Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund, and in came Victor Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala.

The Niederreiter for Rask deal has so far been a complete dud from Minnesota’s perspective, but Donato and Fiala have both been impactful, and this suddenly younger team is also suddenly fun to watch. Despite losing the last two in a row, both in shootouts and both to the Predators, Minnesota has points in seven straight games, and looks very confident. After essentially acting as a seller at the deadline, it’s a team that remains very much in the mix. 

Injury Report:

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Speaking of teams having a weird season, Colorado jumped out to an insanely hot start to the year, with its top line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabe Landeskog running amok over pretty much every team in the league. But somewhere in December, opposing clubs figured out how to play against the top-heavy Avalanche, and the wheels came off the wagon. Between December 21st and February 12th, the Avs lost 22 of 28 games, knocking them from one of the top teams in the Western Conference all the way out of the playoff bubble. 

The beginning of the season was so good for Colorado, though, it was enough to keep it within striking distance of a playoff spot, even despite that disastrous stretch. The Avalanche have now won six of their last nine, and are just two points out of the final wild card in the West. 

Rantanen and MacKinnon are fifth and sixth in the NHL in scoring with 85 and 84 points respectively, and MacKinnon is tenth in goals with 34. After that top line, things fall off dramatically, so look for some moves to improve the team’s depth this offseason. 

As an interesting side note, there’s an off chance that – with Ottawa’s first-round pick thanks to last season’s Matt Duchene trade – the Avs could theoretically win the draft lottery this summer, regardless of whether or not they make the playoffs. 

Injury Report:

**Injury reports come from Rotoworld.com.