Every week, Madhouse Enforcer will take a look around the Central Division and let you know who’s hot and who’s not in our little corner of the hockey world.
1 (Last Week’s Rank: 1): St. Louis Blues
With victories over the Predators and Jets last week, the Blues ran their record against the Central Division to an incredible 20-0-2 this season, and gave themselves a nice lead as they aggressively pursue the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Goaltender Ryan Miller looks like he’s been reborn in St. Louis’ defensive system, and guys like David Backes (two goals on Monday) are picking up their games as well.
Those two players will be crucial for the Blues as they hit a tough stretch of their schedule. They head to Chicago for their first of two remaining games at the United Center on Wednesday, and then they head to Pennsylvania over the weekend to take on the Flyers and Penguins in a tough set of back-to-back games. The latter will be an especially good barometer of where the Blues are, judging by the Penguins’ impressive offense this season.
2 (Last Week’s Rank: 3): Colorado Avalanche
Want an idea of how good the Avalanche are this season? Not only have they won four out of five games against the Blackhawks (including two wins in eight days against the defending champions), but they also haven’t lost a game against a team outside of the playoff picture since a January 10th loss to the New York Islanders.
There are a few reasons for concern about the Avalanche, with their defense representing the most serious question mark, but overall this team is solidly built. Semyon Varlamov is turning himself into a bona fide Vezina contender, and youngsters like Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are really turning into formidable players. Could they make some noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs? If Varlamov stays hot, there’s no telling what this squad may be capable of.
3 (Last Week’s Rank: 2): Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks finally broke off the skids on Sunday with a convincing win over the Detroit Red Wings, and they were aided in large part thanks to the return of Marian Hossa to the lineup, as he picked up a goal and was up to all of his usual tricks as the Hawks won.
The problem for the Blackhawks at this point in the season is a simple one: they can’t seem to beat the top teams in their division. They have yet to beat the Blues this season (although they will get another chance on Wednesday at home), and they only won once in five tries against the upstart Avalanche. Playoff hockey is a different animal, but can the Hawks finally solve the Varlamov riddle if the two teams’ paths cross in April? There is no easy answer to that question.
4 (Last Week’s Rank: 4): Minnesota Wild
The Wild still have a three-point cushion over the Phoenix Coyotes for the first wild card spot in the Western Conference, but they have been doing everything in their power to cough that spot up for a few weeks now. They’ve lost five of their last six games, and they’ve only scored four goals in their last three contests.
One guy that the Wild really need to step up is Mikko Koivu. Ever since he returned from injury earlier this month, he has two assists in seven games, and is scoreless in his last four games. He also hasn’t scored a goal since December 27th despite playing over 20 minutes per game in four of the seven contests he has played since returning to the lineup.
5 (Last Week’s Rank: 5): Dallas Stars
The Stars started out last week with a bang, beating the Blues in overtime to vault back into the Western Conference playoffs, but they ended it with a whimper as they lost to the Flames in a shootout and in an embarrassing 7-2 blowout defeat at the hands of the Jets. Part of the problem has been that they are dealing with injuries to key players like Kari Lehtonen, but new acquisition Tim Thomas hasn’t been all that great either.
Fortunately for Dallas, they will be getting Lehtonen back this week to help solidify themselves in the crease. Unfortunately, they are heading into a really tough stretch of games to welcome Kari back, as they head to Pennsylvania for games against the Penguins and Flyers. They also have another game with the Blackhawks looming next week, so things aren’t looking to get much easier any time soon.
6 (Last Week’s Rank: 7): Winnipeg Jets
Despite losing seven of their last eight games, the Jets are somehow only six points out of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference thanks to an emphatic 7-2 win over the Stars on Sunday. They crashed back to Earth on Monday, dropping a 3-1 decision to the Blues, but the Jets are a team that is still impossible to get a read on.
Between their goaltending (Al Montoya and Ondrej Pavelec are both maddeningly inconsistent) and their awful power play (1-for-15 in their last four games), the Jets are a team that in all likelihood will be watching the playoffs from home come April, but there is still a possibility that they could be a thorn in the side of several clubs as the playoffs draw closer.
7 (Last Week’s Rank: 6): Nashville Predators
Injuries to key players like Pekka Rinne haven’t helped matters, but the Predators have been one of the most underwhelming teams in the league this season. They did run up a nice three game winning streak last week, including a tough win at the United Center over the Blackhawks, but they resumed their losing ways when they fell to the Blues on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena.
This week, the Predators will once again hit the road, swinging through western Canada to battle the Oilers, Canucks, and Flames, before heading back stateside to tangle with the Blackhawks in Chicago again on Sunday. In fact, on their remaining schedule, the Predators only have five home games left, so they will be racking up the frequent flier miles as they finish this lost season.