playoff matchups

Predators hop over Jets, Blues to win Central Division

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(UPDATE: Here’s the full Round 1 schedule with dates and TV info.)

They won’t need a banner for the Presidents’ Trophy this time around, but the Nashville Predators did manage to win the Central Division for the second season in a row — this time on the final night of the season.

Saturday set a fitting scene, then, as the Predators fought back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2. An empty-net goal and Nick Bonino‘s late 5-2 tally made the game look a lot more lopsided that it often was.

(In fact, Ryan Ellis kept what could have been a 3-3 tying goal out of the Predators’ net with a head’s up play.)

It’s fitting in at least a few ways. For one thing, the Predators symbolically took the divisional torch from the Blackhawks during their run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Chicago won the 2016-17 Central Division title, then the Predators emphatically swept them. From there, Nashville’s won the last two Central crowns. Maybe that history explains why the Blackhawks gave Nashville such a battle?

The benefits seem pretty clear. Nashville avoids either the St. Louis Blues or the Winnipeg Jets in the first round. That doesn’t mean they’ll open the first round in a leisurely way against the Dallas Stars, but avoiding the Jets and Blues is a plus. Nashville also gets home ice for at least two rounds of the postseason, depending upon how things shake out.

It’s enough to leave you hopping with joy.

Again, it will be Nashville vs. Dallas, which figures to be a very tight-checking matchup.

Meanwhile, we’ll get what is sure to be a slobberknocker (c/o Jim Ross) of a two vs. three seed series in the Central, as the Blues will face the Jets. It’s not yet clear which team will hold home-ice advantage in that series, as the Blues currently sit in second, but Winnipeg can pass them (hop by them?) if they beat the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.

That series is, frankly, about as tough to call as the Central Division race has been down the wire.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.