Central Division Watch (February 2nd)

With the All-Star break over, it’s time for the NHL playoff races to intensify. Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division’s outlook. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.

Central Division outlook (Wednesday, February 2nd – Tuesday, February 8th)

1. Detroit Red Wings (31-13-6 for 68 pts; 50 GP)

Current streak: Two wins.

Week ahead: Win vs. Ottawa, vs. Columbus (Friday), @ Nashville (Saturday), home vs. Rangers (Monday).

Thoughts: Nashville’s slippage ends yet another here-today gone-tomorrow threat to the Red Wings’ top spot in the division. They’ll face the two most recent contenders/pretenders to the throne in a back-to-back this weekend.

2. Nashville Predators (27-17-7 for 61 pts; 51 GP)

Current streak: Three losses in a row.

Week ahead: @ Philadelphia (Thurs), home vs. Detroit (Sat), home vs. Edmonton (Monday).

Thoughts: There’s not much room for slumps in the bitterly competitive West. Nashville is now threatened by just about every Pacific Division team outside of Dallas and their own division foes from Chicago. If they go into lull mode this week, the scrappy bunch could see their cushion disappear completely.

3. Chicago Blackhawks (27-20-4 for 58 pts; 51 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Two road games – one against Vancouver (Fri), one against Calgary (Mon)

Thoughts: The Canucks and Red Wings are the only two teams with better goal differentials than the Blackhawks’ +21, yet Chicago is in a far more tenuous playoff situation. The Hawks begin a five game road trip (and a tough February with eight of their next 11 games away from home) this week. Perhaps having a ton of all-star representatives will inspire them to, you know, actually make the postseason.

4. St. Louis Blues (22-20-7 for 51 pts; 49 GP)

Current streak: Four game losing streak.

Week ahead: home vs. Edmonton (Fri), @ Tampa Bay (Sun), @ Florida (Tues).

Thoughts: The Blues aren’t totally out of contention, but they’re fading fast. It won’t be an easy February overall (especially after the next two weeks), so they might want to consider going into “sell mode” if they don’t at least earn two wins.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets (23-22-5 for 51 pts; 50 GP)

Current streak: Two losses in a row.

Week ahead: @ Detroit (Fri), vs. Edmonton (Sat), @ Pittsburgh (Tues)

Thoughts: The next week might do the Blue Jackets in, especially when you consider the fact that they’ll face the suddenly hot San Jose Sharks on Wednesday the 9th. Not sure how many players on the Columbus roster are trade deadline material (the team is largely comprised of young and/or overpriced players), although I’m sure there might be some people interested in defensive center Samuel Pahlsson.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2.

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?

Hurricanes’ Lack hospitalized after collision on Red Wings’ OT goal

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The Carolina Hurricanes fell short of a win on Monday, but their thoughts likely revolve around the health of goalie Eddie Lack instead.

Lack was taken off the ice on a stretcher after a collision during Andreas Athanasiou‘s game-winning goal in overtime. Officials reviewed that the goal counted, giving the Red Wings a 4-3 overtime victory against Carolina.

While it’s been a tough overall season for Hurricanes goalie, Lack has been an integral part of Carolina’s push for a postseason spot. PHT will keep an eye out for updates regarding his condition after this scary collision.

The Red Wings stayed on the ice as Lack was taken off, a nice gesture after an unfortunate accident.

Update: A mostly positive bit of news from the Hurricanes.