With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Central Division is headed down the home stretch and we have Madhouse Enforcer’s latest edition of our Power Rankings to set the scene.
1. Nashville Predators (Last Week’s Rank: 4)
The Predators were struggling in a big way in recent weeks, but they’ve started to make some strides back toward their previous quality play, and as a result they jump to number one in our rankings this week. They became the first Central Division team to clinch a playoff spot this week, and they currently hold a three point lead over the Blues for the top spot in the division.
Looking at the final five games on their schedule, the Predators will have a couple of winnable games on home ice against Vancouver and Dallas, but their final three contests are brutal. Going to Colorado is never an easy task, and a road trip to Dallas to wrap things up against a team that seems to be getting its act together late in the season will be tough too. A home game against the Minnesota Wild next Thursday will also provide a stern test as Nashville tries to keep a hold on the top seed in the Central.
2. St. Louis Blues (Last Week’s Rank: 1)
The Blues have been stumbling a bit in recent weeks, losing four of their last five games after back-to-back shutout wins over the Stars and the Flames. A 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday prevented them from inching within striking distance of Nashville in the Central, and to lose that game on home ice raises some questions about where the team is as the playoffs approach.
This week will be a gauntlet for the Blues as they look to gain ground on the Predators. Home games against the Canucks and Flames open things up, and then a road trip to Dallas Friday will make for an interesting game against a hot team. The big finish comes on Sunday though as they head to Chicago for an all-important Easter showdown with the Blackhawks. The winner of that game will likely gain an upper hand in the division race, and the loser could be left fighting with Minnesota for the third spot in the Central if things play out the right way.
3. Minnesota Wild (Last Week’s Rank: 3)
The Wild have won five games in a row and seven of their last eight, but their victory on Saturday over the Los Angeles Kings was as close to a statement win as you can get in today’s NHL. They did allow 32 shots on goal, but their offense looked fantastic as they scored four goals on just 20 shots, and goaltender Devan Dubnyk did the rest as they dealt a blow to the Kings’ playoff chances.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, there is no time to celebrate. Their last six games are all against teams that are in playoff contention, and the first three will all take place on home ice. The New York Rangers come to town on Thursday, and playing against the top team in the Metropolitan Division will surely give us a good indication of where Minnesota is as the playoffs near.
4. Chicago Blackhawks (Last Week’s Rank: 2)
The Blackhawks went from threatening for the top spot in the rankings to fourth place this week on the strength of two embarrassing losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Blue Jackets. Forward Andrew Shaw admitted that the team likely overlooked those two clubs, and the evidence was clear as the offense continued to struggle and the defense conceded nine goals in a truly lackluster performance.
This week will give the Hawks an opportunity to bounce back from those defeats, as they welcome the Kings, Canucks, and Blues to the United Center and travel up to Buffalo to take on the lowly Sabres.
5. Winnipeg Jets (Last Week’s Rank: 5)
After winning five games in a row, the Jets seemed poised to ride a wave of momentum into the playoffs, but a blowout loss to the Canucks on Tuesday and a heartbreaking last second defeat at the hands of the Blackhawks Sunday really puts a damper on the parade. On the positive side, they did get a quality win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, and they did get a great contribution from Dustin Byfuglien in Sunday’s loss to Chicago as the defenseman scored two goals in the game.
The Jets only play twice this week before playing four games in six days to wrap up the season, so they’ll have to take advantage of every moment of rest they can get. The games themselves will both be tough as they take on the Rangers and the Canucks, but at least they’ll get to stay in Manitoba for the pair of home games.
6. Dallas Stars (Last Week’s Rank: 7)
The Stars aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they have been playing their best hockey of the season in recent weeks, winning eight of their last 10 games. They’ve thrown a wrench into several playoff races as well, beating the Flames, Canucks, and Blackhawks in recent games and looking really good in the process.
This next week will give them three more opportunities to impact the races. They welcome the Flames and Blues into the Lone Star State for games to start out the week, and then they head to Nashville on Saturday for a key showdown against the Predators.
7. Colorado Avalanche (Last Week’s Rank: 6)
The Avalanche are in a tough spot as a franchise, finishing out the season high enough in the standings that they had a whisker-thin chance of making the postseason (three losses in a row essentially ended that dream last week) and not finishing low enough to get a really good chance at a high draft pick that will help elevate their chances for next year.
Before they can worry about that, the Avalanche have their final seven games of the season to attend to. They’ll get that slate started out on Monday night against Edmonton before hitting the road for their final trip of the season. That journey will take them through California for three games, including a back-to-back set against the Ducks and Kings to finish off the week.