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
Last week started out with a bang for the Blues as they knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres, but it ended with a big thud as they dropped two straight contests to the Avalanche and Blackhawks, the latter of which was their second straight defeat to their Central Division rivals.
This week will be a bit of a challenge for St. Louis as they try to finally nail down the division championship. They have a home game against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, but their final three games of the season are all against playoff teams, with the toughest test looming on Friday when they tangle with the Dallas Stars, who are currently trying to fend off Phoenix for the final wild card spot.
2 (Last Week’s Rank: 2): Chicago Blackhawks
Just like a cheesy horror movie, the dirt had barely started hitting the Blackhawks’ coffin this week when they punched through the lid. Despite losing Jonathan Toews to an injury, the Hawks won three consecutive games over playoff teams to climb back into the race for the second seed in the division, and they are getting contributions from all over their lineup.
Now with Johnny Oduya back and Patrick Kane preparing to resume practicing, the Hawks will have a couple of tough challenges to finish the season. After their home finale against the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday, they will have back-to-back road tests against the Capitals and Predators. Neither team will be in the postseason, but they would likely love nothing more than to give the Hawks a couple of dings before the playoffs begin.
3 (Last Week’s Rank: 3): Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche are rolling again despite seeing their six game winning streak snapped by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. They are doing this even without Matt Duchene in the lineup, as the offensive dynamo will likely miss the first round of the playoffs with an injury. Semyon Varlamov is doing his best to lock up a nomination for the Vezina Trophy, and captain Gabriel Landeskog is continuing to wow pundits and fans alike with his exploits.
Unfortunately for the Avalanche, their remaining four games are going to be a slugfest to the finish. They hit the road on Tuesday to take on the Oilers, and then they play three times in the final four days of the season, with the Sharks and Ducks looming on the slate. They’ll have to be careful going through that California swing, as the Hawks are lurking just three points back in the standings.
4 (Last Week’s Rank: 4): Minnesota Wild
The Wild have largely stayed above the fray as teams battle it out for the second wild card spot in the West, and part of the reason for that is that they are finishing the season well. Despite a shootout loss to Chicago on Thursday, the Wild bounced back nicely with wins over the Penguins and Jets to wrap up the week.
Their final three games of the season won’t be a cakewalk, but there isn’t a lot they need to do in order to secure their playoff berth. They have home tilts against the Bruins and Blues, then wrap up the campaign with a home skate against the Nashville Predators on Sunday. If they can secure two points out of those three games (or get a regulation loss from either the Stars or Coyotes), then they are guaranteed a wild card spot.
5 (Last Week’s Rank: 5): Dallas Stars
The Stars were a team that many people didn’t know what to anticipate from them as the season got underway, but under the direction of Lindy Ruff and backed by the goaltending of Kari Lehtonen, the Stars control their own playoff destiny in the season’s final week. They did lose 3-2 to the Panthers on Sunday, but beating the Tampa Bay Lightning gave them a bit of a cushion over the Coyotes, who trail them by one point for the wild card.
After three straight home games to wrap up the home part of their slate (including a tough one against the Blues on Friday), the Stars wrap up the season with a trip to Phoenix for a game that could potentially decide their playoff fate. All eyes in the league will be on that game, with the winner likely getting the Blues in the first round (although the Ducks are just one point back of St. Louis for the top spot in the West).
6 (Last Week’s Rank: 6): Nashville Predators
Unfortunately for the Predators, the six point deficit they face in the wild card race will likely keep Barry Trotz’s team out of the postseason. Despite that fact, the Predators are still in a wonderful position to throw a wrench into the Western Conference playoffs, as they will face four teams jockeying for playoff position to wrap up the year.
They start out with a road game against the Stars, and then head home to face the Coyotes in a pair of games that could have huge wild card implications. Then they welcome the Blackhawks to Bridgestone Arena on Saturday looking to continue their recent success against the defending champions. Finally, they will head north to battle the Wild, who still haven’t locked up a playoff spot just yet.
7 (Last Week’s Rank: 7): Winnipeg Jets
The Jets have to be disappointed with the way their season has gone, but if they end up having to trade Evander Kane in the offseason (there are rumors swirling that the talented forward has requested a trade), then they could be looking at a serious rebuilding process that will leave the fans in Winnipeg still aching for a playoff berth in the future.
To finish off the season, the Jets will welcome the Bruins to MTS Centre on Thursday, then head to Calgary to battle the lowly Flames for the finale. Neither game has much of a bearing on where the Jets will finish the season in the standings, but it will be interesting to see how Paul Maurice’s team rebounds from a lackluster 1-0 loss to the Wild on Monday.