If the postseason started today, all five Central Division teams would make the playoffs

When I made my predictions for the regular season, I decide to go out on a limb and chose four Central Division teams to make the playoffs, meaning that the division would represent half of the Western Conference’s postseason squads. I actually might have been too conservative with my Central Division praise, though, being that each team would make the playoffs if they started today.

(John Manasso of NHL.com pointed this fact out on Sunday.)

For a quick look at where they rank in the top eight in the West, here’s a screen shot from NBC’s team standings. Click here for the full standings if you want to get a comprehensive look at the situation.

Let’s take a cursory glance at how each Central team is doing so far.

2. Chicago

The Blackhawks might not rank so high in the West much longer since they’re actually quite average (7-6-1). Their 14 games played is three more than any other team except for the wholly awful Anaheim Ducks (12 GP), so quite a few teams should leapfrog them.

4. St. Louis

The Jaroslav Halak experiment is passing with flying colors right now. The Blues are currently on a four-game winning streak, allowing only 17 goals in nine games played so far this season.

5. Detroit

The Red Wings have been dealing with injury problems so far, as Brian Rafalski, Johan Franzen and now both their goalies are dealing with bumps and bruises. Yet a resurgent Nicklas Lidstrom (11 points in nine games) and a talented, experienced group has this team starting strong.

6. Nashville

It really says a lot about this division that three of its teams make up the 4-5-6 spots. The Predators are sliding a little bit, as they’ve dropped two games and allowed two more goals than they produced, but they’re a scrappy bunch who should be in the playoff picture this season.

8. Columbus

The Blue Jackets are, by my estimation, the biggest surprise (and the most likely to flounder). They’ve allowed five more goals than they produced and are only 3-3 at home, yet who would have thought they’d be in front of Vancouver and San Jose so far this season?


Chances are pretty strong that at least one – if not two – of these teams will fall out of the picture. I’d venture that the Blue Jackets are the most likely to plummet out of the playoffs while the Predators need to keep fighting to stick around.

Either way, the division is probably the best in the NHL right now. The last three Western Conference champions have come from this division, so maybe it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise.

Niemi blanks Pens, notches two assists in Stars debut

Antti Niemi, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist
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DALLAS (AP) — Antti Niemi recorded his 33rd career shutout and assisted on two goals in his Dallas debut, as the Stars beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both.

Ales Hemsky had a power-play goal and an assist.

Rookie Matthias Janmark scored on his first shot on his first shift in an NHL game to make it 1-0. The Stars acquired Niemi and Janmark in trades earlier this year.

Dallas scored on two of five power plays. Jamie Benn, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, had a power-play goal in the third period.

Niemi made 37 saves to improve his career record against the Penguins to 5-1-1. He withstood a flurry in the final minute after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater.

Fleury had 21 saves.

The Stars are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against Pittsburgh, and have won three in a row overall.

Janmark skated down the slot, took a pass from Hemsky and shot between Fleury’s legs at 1:39 of the first.

The Penguins dominated the latter half of the period, but couldn’t score. Niemi’s best stop was a reaching glove save of Rod Scuderi’s drive from the blue line with less than 3 minutes remaining. Pittsburgh outshot the Stars 10-4 in the first.

Hemsky scored at 5:42 of the second on Dallas’ first power play. His shot from the top of the right faceoff circle went in over Fleury’s right shoulder.

The Penguins again had an advantage in shots, 13-11. Pittsburgh had chances in close, but Niemi turned those away. Midway through the second, John Klingberg cleared away a loose puck from in front of the net.

Seven seconds into the Stars’ fourth power play of the third period, Jamie Benn tipped in Jason Spezza‘s shot from the right point.

NOTES: Dallas acquired Janmark as part of a March trade that sent Erik Cole to Detroit. The rookie had been playing in the Swedish Hockey League. . San Jose traded Niemi’s rights to the Stars in June for a seventh-round draft pick. Also making their Dallas debuts were LW Patrick Sharp and D Johnny Oduya, teammates with Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions last season. . In his first game for the Penguins, Phil Kessel played in his 447th straight game. . Pittsburgh was 0 for 3 on the power play.

Fabbri’s first spoils McDavid’s debut as Blues down Oilers

Robby Fabbri, Justin Schultz
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rookie Robby Fabbri scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to help the St. Louis Blues beat Edmonton 3-1 Thursday night, spoiling Oilers rookie Connor McDavid‘s NHL debut.

Vladimir Tarasenko had the tying goal for the Blues near the midpoint of the second period, and Troy Brouwer added an empty-netter with 18 seconds remaining in the third. Brian Elliott finished with 23 saves.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the first period for Edmonton and Cam Talbot had 28 saves.

McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, took 22 shifts, played 18:07 and was on the ice for Brouwer’s goal. He had two shots on goal, and struggled on faceoffs – winning only three of 13.

Fabbri, a 19-year-old forward — and McDavid’s childhood friend — was also playing in his first NHL game. The Blues’ first-round pick in 2014 was one of three rookies in the St. Louis lineup, joining defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.

Nugent-Hopkins gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a fluke power-play goal. He lost a face-off but when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo tried to clear the puck it bounced off Alexander Steen and past Brian Elliott. Nugent-Hopkins was credited with the unassisted power-play goal with 2:38 remaining in the period.

Tarasenko tied it a 9:10 of the second after getting loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass from Alex Pietrangelo and beating Talbot through his legs.

Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60 million extension in the offseason, was the last Blues player to score in his debut.

NOTES: McDavid and F Anton Slepyshev made their NHL debuts for the Oilers. … St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dropped the ceremonial first puck. … The attendance was announced as standing room-only 19,327.