Central Division Watch (March 8)

Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.

Central Division outlook (March 8 -March 14th)

1. Detroit Red Wings (39-19-8 for 86 pts; 66 Games Played)

Current streak: Three losses in a row.

Week ahead: Home vs. Los Angeles (Wednesday), home vs. Edmonton (Friday) and @ St. Louis (Saturday).

Thoughts: For any Red Wings fans who might fear the concept of the Blackhawks taking the Central Division against high odds, look on the bright side: Detroit’s been better on the road this season. The veteran squad currently has a 22-9-4 record in away games, probably aided in some way by the fact that the team tends to draw their own fans during most – if not all – road games.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (37-23-6 for 80 pts; 66 GP)

Current streak: Eight wins in a row.

Week ahead: Three road games – vs. Florida (Tues), Tampa Bay (Wed) and Washington (Sun) plus one home game against San Jose (Mon).

Thoughts: So, could the Blackhawks actually take the Central? Probably not, but they do have one big thing going for them: three more games against the Red Wings this season. If they could pull off the unlikely feat of beating Detroit those three times in regulation, that would bridge the six point gap between the two teams in a vacuum. Again, it’s tough to imagine that happening, but it’s possible.

3. Nashville Predators (33-24-9 for 75 pts; 66 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: Away vs. San Jose (Tues), home vs. Minnesota (Thurs), home vs. Colorado (Sat).

Thoughts: The Predators are stumbling badly right now, going 2-5-1 in their last eight games. They are still in the chase for a lower seed spot though, but every loss is going to hurt (especially if they fall in regulation). Thursday’s game against the Wild is the biggest of the week, but every game is big for Barry Trotz’s gang going forward.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (31-26-8 for 70 pts; 65 GP)

Current streak: Five straight losses.

Week ahead: Home vs. St. Louis (Wed), home vs. Los Angeles (Fri) and @ Carolina (Sat).

Thoughts: While the Predators still have an excellent chance to make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets are fading quickly. They’ve lost five games in a row after an impressive 8-1-1 run. There are going to be some disappointed teams once the West bubble bursts and it’s looking more and more like the Jackets will be one of them.

5. St. Louis Blues (29-28-9 for 67 pts; 66 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Away vs. Columbus (Wed), home vs. Montreal (Thurs) and home vs. Detroit (Sat).

Thoughts: With all the quality teams in front of them, it’s almost certain that the Blues should be thinking about the draft more than the playoffs right now. Sure, a comeback might be mathematically possible, but it’s hard to imagine them even getting in the top 10 (let alone the playoff eight).

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    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

    The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

    The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.