Looking Ahead: The Central Division

Marian, is so easy to practice. You be good too if you get to play Ericsson every day.

With the All-Star Game now behind us, we spent a few days decompressing from the first half of the season while we cheered on our two Red Wing representatives. However, the skills competition and game itself only took up a few hours of our weekend, and the Super Bowl is still a week away, so we were left with a lot of down time.

Besides being a showcase for most of the NHL's best players (at least the ones who don't have boo-boos, aren't thugs and are too old), the All-Star break is typically a time where teams and fans assess how their teams did in the first half of the season while looking forward to the second half and, for 16 teams, the playoffs.

For me, one of the biggest developments of the first half of the season was the emergence of the Central Division as a true powerhouse in the NHL. As of the break, the top 4 teams in the Central (Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago) all had as many points as any other team in the Western Conference. 3 points separate the first place Red Wings from the fourth place Blackhawks, and the race to the division crown promises to go down to the last day of the season.

After the jump, we assess where each team is now, what their schedule looks like going forward, and the one burning question facing each team in the second half of the season.

DETROIT RED WINGS:

Red_wings_snapshot_01-28_medium

Not a bad start. First in the Central, first in the Western Conference, 1st in the NHL. The Wings are arguably the most balanced of the 4 Central teams, and they have won games with offense, defense and solid goaltending.

Schedule: Of the 4 division teams, the Wings have played the most road games through the first half of the season (27). As you'll see, none of the Central teams are lighting it up on the road, so the Wings have an opportunity to take advantage of their stellar home play. The Wings begin a 4-game road trip through Western Canada immediately after the break, and then they get to play 18 of their last 28 games at Joe Louis Arena, where they haven't lost since November 3rd. If the Wings have a distinct advantage over their division counterparts, it's their schedule. Here's the breakdown:

Detroit Home Schedule GP Pts Pts% Opp Road GP Opp Road Pts Opp Road Pts%
Vs Edmonton 49 41 26 14
Vs Anaheim 48 43 22 16
Vs Philadelphia 48 63 27 38
Vs Dallas 48 52 23 22
Vs Nashville 50 64 24 29
Vs San Jose 47 60 22 28
Vs Vancouver 49 64 26 33
Vs Colorado 51 54 25 26
Vs Minnesota 49 55 27 26
Vs Chicago 50 64 21 22
Vs Los Angeles 50 58 21 26
Vs Washington 48 55 23 18
Vs Carolina 51 45 24 16
Vs Columbus 49 32 25 13
Vs Nashville 50 64 24 29
Vs Florida 48 55 25 26
Vs New Jersey 48 55 25 29
Vs Chicago 50 64 21 22
Totals 883 988 0.559 431 433 0.502
Detroit Road Schedule GP Pts Pts% Opp Home GP Opp Home Pts Opp Home Pts%
At Calgary 50 52 22 28
At Vancouver 49 64 23 31
At Edmonton 49 41 23 27
At Phoenix 50 52 23 24
At Chicago 50 64 29 42
At Columbus 49 32 24 19
At Philadelphia 48 63 21 25
At Nashville 50 64 26 35
At Los Angeles 50 58 29 32
At Anaheim 48 43 26 27
At San Jose 47 60 25 32
At NYR 47 66 22 32
At Columbus 49 32 24 19
At St Louis 50 64 28 46
Totals 686 755 0.550 345 419 0.607

Wondering about the breaks in the games? Those represent the home and away games on the opposite schedule. The Wings will get to play the majority of their schedule at home, where they are a blistering 20-2-1. Factor in a road schedule that is below average (the NHL as a whole earns 62% of home points, while the Wings’ road opponents only earn 60.7% of their home points), and the Wings are in good shape headed into the second half of the season.

Burning Question: We covered this yesterday, but on top of the questions already posed I add this: can the Wings remain healthy?

ST LOUIS BLUES:

Blues_snapshot_01-31_medium

I think it's safe to say the Blues represent one of the bigger surprises in the NHL. After a slow start, the Blues fired Davis Payne and hired Ken Hitchcock, and they have been one of the best teams in the NHL ever since. They're doing it with defense; they currently sit 1st in the NHL in GA/G and SA/G.

Schedule: While the Wings have played the most road games of any team in the Central, the Blues are tied with the Blackhawks for the fewest. Much like the Wings, the Blues are a much different team away from Scottrade, and one need only see their goals for to understand their problems. At home, they can put the puck in the net, ranking 4th in the NHL with 81 GF in 28 games. On the road, they are dead last, tied with Buffalo in road offense. They also give up more goals on the road, but not by a significant margin. The key for the Blues will be navigating two long road trips, one of 6 games and one of 7 games, with only home game in between. Here’s the breakdown:

Burning Question: Can the Blues continue to get the quality of goaltending from both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott that they received in the first half?

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Predators_snapshot_01-31_medium

Ah, Nashville. Like that rash you had that one time after drinking the questionable milk, the Predators refuse to go away. It’s the same old same old for the Preds: score enough goals while getting outstanding goaltending in front of a very good defense corps. However, the Preds finished the first half 12th in GF/G while being unsurprisingly 9th in GA/G.

Schedule: Unlike the other 3 teams in the Central, the Predators are actually a good team away from home. A lot of that is due to their style of play, which is predicated on defense and goaltending while slowing the game down. However, if there’s one thing working against the Preds, it’s the fact that of the 4 teams in the division, Nashville has the hardest schedule. While the league average for points percentage is 56.6%, the Predators will be playing teams that earn 59.2% of their available points. They have a huge stretch where they play all 3 of their division rivals on the road in March, and that could make or break them depending on where they stand at the time.

Burning Question: Are the Predators going to make a splash at the trade deadline and pick up a scorer, or will they try and win with the lineup they have now?

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS:

Blackhawks_snapshot_01-31_medium

The Blackhawks raced out to a fairly comfortable lead in the division early, but inconsistent play and questionable goaltending caused a drop in the standings. The Hawks enter the second half in fourth place in the division, but they still have as many points as anyone in the West except the Wings and Blues. The Hawks can score with anyone, but injuries to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp contributed to the Hawks limping to the break.

Schedule: Of the 4 Central teams, the Hawks have played the most home games, and they will begin the second half with a brutal 9-game road trip that criss-crosses the country. The Hawks are average on the road, and bad play during this stretch could see them fall further behind the leaders. The Hawks have the 2nd hardest schedule behind the Predators.

Burning Question: Can the Blackhawks find a way to keep the puck out of their own net? They are 20th in the NHL in GA/G, a stat that can come back to haunt them in the playoffs.

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