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Handicapping the Central Division title race between Wild, Blackhawks

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The Minnesota Wild have a chance to increase an already solid lead for the Central Division crown if they can beat the Chicago Blackhawks in a game being televised on NBCSN tonight. (They couldn’t, as the Blackhawks won 4-3 in overtime.)

Really, though, the next month presents quite the opportunity to fatten that edge.

With that being the only game on Wednesday, this seems like a worthwhile time to take a look at the bigger pictures facing each team. Here are the full Central Division standings heading into tonight’s game to add some context:

Central Division standings, now updated with Chicago’s OT win

1. Wild – 76 points in 53 games
2. Blackhawks – 71 points in 55 GP
3. Predators – 60 in 53 GP

Blues – 59 in 54 GP
Jets – 54 in 56 GP
Stars – 52 in 54 GP
Avalanche – 32 in 50 GP

Yes, there’s a chance a team like the Predators or Blues could figure into the conversation, but honestly even the Blackhawks have quite a bit of ground to make up to catch Minnesota.

Looking at their schedules really cements the notion that Bruce Boudreau’s crew could essentially silence the discussion with a strong month.

Opportunities ahead for the Wild

  • Tonight’s game against the Blackhawks begins an eight-game homestand for Minnesota. The Wild are less dependent upon winning at home (17-6-1 in Minnesota, 18-6-5 on the road), but it’s still a great chance to stock up points.

Minnesota will host the Blackhawks twice during this eight-game homestand and could also distance themselves from other Central opponents with a home contest against each of the Predators and Stars.

  • While February presents opportunities, the Wild start off March with more road games. From Feb. 28 – March 19, the Wild play eight of 11 contests away from Minny.
  • The Wild end the season with some solid chances to end the debate. They play five of six in Minnesota from March 21-30 and seven of nine at home from March 21 through April 4.
  • Finally, they end the season with two road games. Those games are against the Avalanche (April 6) and Coyotes (April 8), two teams that will likely have very little to play for.

Overall, it seems like a pretty beneficial schedule for the Wild’s aims. Let’s see how things look for Chicago.

Blackhawks are resilient so far on the road

  • The Blackhawks began this current six-game road trip with a 3-1 loss to the Sharks on Jan. 31. They’ve won the next three contests of that tour, so they’ve been carving out those difficult points.
  • This six-game trip ends with a back-to-back set on the weekend. Counting Wednesday’s game, Chicago faces five of their next six games away from the United Center.
  • As things get tougher for the Wild at the end of February/beginning of March, the Blackhawks enjoy a friendlier stretch. The Blackhawks play four in a row, five of six and six of eight at home from Feb. 23 through March 12.
  • After that, it’s back-and-forth. They play three games on the road (March 14-18), three at home (March 19-23), three on the road (March 25-29), two home games (March 31 and April 2) and then close things out with three away games. They face the Avalanche in that closing set, but also the Ducks and Kings.

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So, you can see that things go both ways, but the Wild generally seem to have a more favorable schedule. At least on paper.

With the additional benefit of two games in hand, one would say that the Wild have the edge … but it would be foolish to count out the Blackhawks.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.