Monday, January 8, 2018

Weekend wrap: Central casting

Every now and then, we like to use this space to focus in on one particular division. Last month we went through the Metro and tried to make sense of a traffic jam of teams all separated by a few points. This month’s division features slightly more separation, but no fewer question marks. Let’s take a run through the Central.

For the last few years, the Central has been the league’s standard-bearer as the top division. That perception was largely driven by the Blackhawks and their three Stanley Cups, which made sense. But despite being a mini-dynasty, Chicago didn’t dominate the division during the regular season; last year was actually the first time since the current format came together in 2013–14 that the Hawks finished first, or even had home-ice in the opening round. Teams like the Stars, Blues and even the Avalanche have taken turns having big years, and last year’s playoffs turned into the Predators’ big coming-out party. In three of the last four years, the Central has taken both wild-card spots and sent five teams to the playoffs.

They may be headed in that direction again this year; we’re just not sure which five teams it would be. The Stars and Wild headed into the weekend controlling the two wild-card spots. Both teams were hoping to aim a little higher heading into the season, with the Wild coming off a 106-point season and the Stars loading up in the off-season to get back into the playoffs. So far, neither squad has really clicked, although both are still within range of the division’s top three.

The Stars come out of the weekend holding onto their spot, but the Wild ceded theirs after getting pummeled by the surging Avalanche, winners of five straight. That’s an impressive feat for a Colorado team that was dead last by a mile last year, then traded one of their best players earlier in the year. Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar don’t seem like punchlines anymore, and it’s starting to feel like last year’s disaster may have been more of a worst-case scenario than a real indication of where the franchise was at.

But the real action has been at the top of the division, where the Jets, Blues and Predators have taken turns leading the charge. For most of the first half, it was the Blues who looked like the best of the group, but they wobbled somewhat through December after Jaden Schwartz got hurt. That continued as they dropped a pair on the weekend, although by picking up a point against the Capitals they at least held onto second place.

That’s because the Predators have been losing ground over the last few weeks, winning just three of nine. They’ve got a key injury of their own in Filip Forsberg, who’ll be out at least a month with what we now know is a broken hand. The team has gone cold ever since that Western Canada swing in mid-December that saw them win three straight by a combined score of 13–1, although they did earn a solid win over the Kings on Saturday.

All of which opens the door for the one Central team we haven’t mentioned yet. And they probably deserve a section of their own.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Boston Bruins (23-10-7, +29 true goals differential*): With points in 11 straight, the Bruins make their first appearance in the top five.

4. Winnipeg Jets (25-11-7, +27): There’s that missing Central team. More on them down below.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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