Faceoff: Central Division
The phrase "best division in hockey" gets thrown around a lot. It's faint praise, in a way—there are only four divisions, so by definition each one has a 25 percent chance of earning the honour. At any given time, someone has to be the best.
And so we probably need a better term to describe what's happening in the Central Division these days. It's not just the best division in hockey, it may well be the best division in sports, period. It's also a bar fight, one that's taking place on a Tilt-A-Whirl during a tornado. It's beautiful.
This isn't new. Last year's Central made its way into the best division ever discussion, then went on to produce the season's Stanley Cup champion. This year's edition doesn't have the same top-to-bottom excellence, but it's even more impressive in a way because it's so top heavy. For much of the past few weeks, the Central has featured three of the league's top four teams in terms of overall points.
That would be the Hawks, Stars and Blues. Or maybe the Stars, Blues and Hawks. Or the Blues, Hawks and Stars. The order shifts around pretty much every day, which is a big part of the fun. Nobody has been able to pull away for the lead. And that's important because this isn't some battle to see who'll get to fly a meaningless "division champ" banner next year. The two teams that don't finish first will have to play each other in the first round, a prospect that's as cruel to the teams and fans involved as it is amazing for the rest of us.
Imagine being, say, the Stars, storming through the regular season on your way to one of the best year's in franchise history only to start the playoffs on the road against the Blackhawks. That's the kind of outcome waiting for one of these teams based on how the last nine games play out.
And it may well be the Stars who end up falling to the dreaded third spot, even though they own the top seed today. They've got a tough schedule, one that features teams like the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, and they've now lost Tyler Seguin to a gruesome Achilles injury that you definitely shouldn't click on. The Blues won't have much sympathy, given the injury problems they've suffered through all year. But they're starting to get healthy just in time for the stretch drive, with Brian Elliot the latest name to resurface. They've got an ugly schedule of their own, one that features a pair of meetings with the Capitals (although it's possible that Washington could have wrapped up the top seed and be resting stars by that point).
Vladimir Tarasenko has the Blues within striking distance of their second straight division title. —Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
And then there's Chicago, the team we'll all be picking no matter where it winds up. The Blackhawks haven't dominated the Central's regular-season standings over the years the way you might assume they have—they've started the playoffs on the road in four of the last five seasons, including last year. They've got the easiest schedule of the three by far, with patsies like the Flames, Canucks, Jets and Blue Jackets showing up. They're also stumbling somewhat down the stretch, losing five of their last six including Sunday's shootout decision to Minnesota.
The Stars sit at 95 points, with the Blues at 93 and the Hawks at 91. All three teams have played 73 games, and while it's still too early to go too far down the tie-breaking rabbit hole, it's worth noting that the Blues are well behind in the ROW column, which could turn out to be big. It's not as if the division winner will get a bye—they'll face a wild-card team, and we'll get to them in a minute—but in a league where the playoffs are a war of attrition and a short series or two can go a long way toward a championship run, it's not hard to see which matchup looks preferable.
But for now, the race to the top of the Central should be fantastic fun for the rest of the season. And for two unfortunate teams, the bar fight will spill over into the opening round.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. St. Louis Blues (42-22-9, +8 true goals differential)—Elliott posted a shutout in his return, which stopped a disturbing mini-slide; they'd lost to Calgary and Edmonton earlier in the week, giving up 13 goals in the process.
4. Chicago Blackhawks (42-24-7, +25)—They lost to the Wild? Man, someone's not in playoff form yet.