Looking at the Central

Ten days into February, the Central Division remains locked in a battle with the East's Atlantic Division for the toughest in hockey. Both divisions currently have four playoff teams (and one bottom-dweller). If the season ended today, The only reason the central would have teams in the 4-5-6 seeding is because of the rule that gives a top-three seed to division winners. This race is getting tighter than yours and my sphincter when we see Sam Gagner skating in on our third-string goalie on a 2-on-0 rush.

I know where I stand as far as this race goes and my confidence in Detroit to end the season at the top of the Central. Detroit is the most-complete team in the division right now. Top-to-bottom depth on offense and defense should be the difference-maker (provided the injury situation doesn't change that). I know that not all Wings fans share my confidence and far be it from me to speak for you. But we all know where we stand with this team by now.

But what about the other fanbases? Where do they stand as far as their confidence to win the Central? Are they as concerned with grabbing a home-seed as we are? Take the jump and I'll try to coalesce the thoughts (or in one fanbase's case, translate the grunts and snorts into language).

I want to start by saying that it's dangerous and impossible to gather the entirety of a fanbase's feelings or even get a perfect grasp on how big a majority is. I'm not going for scientific accuracy here.

Chicago Blackhawks: (29-18-7 65 Points : 4th in the Central)

The Hawks came out of the All-Star break stumbling. They've lost six straight games and will face off against the San Jose Sharks tonight in game 5 of their current 9-game road trip, where they'll still have to face the Preds and Rangers before it's all through. The Hawks' +8 goal differential is fourth-best in the division and is a big departure from +62 in their cup year and even +33 last season. They've scored the 2nd-most goals of all Central teams, but have allowed 19 more than their next-closest competitor.

What their blog is saying: From the sounds over at Second City Hockey, the Blackhawks have two million coaches, and an equal number of GMs who are just as clueless as their actual coach and GM. SamFels wrote on Monday that he's excited about the next two weeks (when the Hawks' losing streak was at 5 games). The reasoning was solid: You find out what kind of team you have in how they respond to adversity. The Hawks got better results than their team looked to deserve early and are now getting worse results than they deserve. Still, there's plenty of concern about whether the coach and GM are on the same page or are even competent.

Their outlook (my take): Chicago has the capability to put together a top-six set of forwards that can skate with any other team's big guns and should be expected to beat them over a long series. They have holes at the bottom of their D, but no team with Keith and Seabrook should be considered weak in that department. Goaltending is not cutting it. I don't know if Corey Crawford can snap out of the suck, but he might be their key. Chicago is good to go talent-wise, but they need whatever it's going to take the make that talent work. If that happens, they're back in cup contention immediately.

Nashville Predators (32-18-5 69 Points : 3rd in Central)

Nashville stumbled a bit out of the gate, but quickly righted the ship and have flown under the radar most of the season. They've had two streaks of four straight losses, but are 12-4-1 since the turn of the year and actually might be considering buying assets at the deadline. The Preds are allowing slightly more goals than they're used to, but they're also scoring more. The Preds are 12th in G/G and GA/G with 2.76 and 2.58 respectively.

What their blog is saying: It's a little harder to gauge the feelings of Preds fans here, but there's something very telling about the fact that they're running a series about potential trade acquisitions. The always-professional On The Forecheck does a great deal of reporting without quite as much editorializing as others. Still, there are some things to be gathered by what's said there and a wealth of information about how excited Preds fans are in this race in the comments over there. I get the feeling that the overall atmosphere is one where Preds fans are more than happy to let other teams get all the praise, but they at least deserve some attention other than the usual media-type mentioning them for no other reason than to speculate as to when one of their defensemen gets moved.

Their outlook (my take): Whether the Predators' season will be successful is going to be dependent on their definition of success here. Like it or not, the game of hockey here is tied very much to the business of hockey and the Predators are much closer to being in a position where it would behoove them to "go for it" than they have been since the lockout. If management wants to play it a bit safe, they're in a great spot with their current roster to fight for a 2nd-round berth again. I don't think the talent is there to get them beyond that. A management gamble here to buy assets likely makes the 2nd round much more likely, but I'm not sure that this team is only a piece or two from competing for the Stanley Cup.

St. Louis Blues (32-14-7 71 Points : 2nd in Central

The Blues were so bad and disorganized to start the season that they finally fired their coach. In his place stepped franchise savior and menace to buffet lines everywhere Ken Hitchcoch. Hitch immediately installed a new attitude-set in the locker room and got some underperforming loafs to buy into the concept that they can compete. St. Louis has allowed only 109 goals this season and sits atop the league in GA/G average. The offensive side for them has yet to come around, as the Blues have only 8 more goals on the season than the 36-point Blue Jackets. They're simply playing a different brand of hockey than everybody else in the division and it's working for them.

What their blog is saying: St. Louis Game Time is ready to believe in the power of the Blues. Today they're ready to make a statement: "Why not the St. Louis Blues?" Brad Lee asks, in which he wistfully opines that all they need to do is rely on the power of positive thinking. Of course, they're painfully aware that the offense hasn't come around yet, but generally feel that their team is short a playmaker rather than a goal-scorer. Resident straight-thinker and Wings-hater Gallagher thinks a bit more realistically than most when it comes time to throwing around trade proposals, correctly pointing out that it's not likely other teams are going to take players the fans are ready to give away for nothing and return them a surefire offensive weapon. Either way, the general feeling I get from over there (other than "yuck") is kind of like Preds fans with attention-whore's disease: They're sick and tired of not being praised as one of the big boys because of a few months worth of regular-season success.

Their outlook (my take): It's obvious to say that the Blues' offense is underperforming. They actually do have the talent to put up more goals, but not as many as they seem to think. St. Louis is getting absolutely incredible goaltending and their whole-team defense is benefiting from being Ken Hitchcock-led. Basically, just like their fans are like Predators fans on mescaline, their team is like the Predators on meth. The Blues could absolutely sneak up and bite a contender who doesn't take them as seriously as they deserve at this point. There's no reason to expect St. Louis to fall any farther than 5th in the conference. Still, I feel that the team making a deadline move is the potential difference between a 2nd round exit and a conference finals exit. That would be incredible for a team like this, but cup dreams are a little premature for a team I think is putting out a playoff-energy level so early in the season.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Off the table (sorry fellas)

Where I think they'll finish

  1. Detroit
  2. St. Louis
  3. Chicago
  4. Nashville

Bonus prediction: Chicago screws up everything nice I just said about them and knocks the Blues out of the first round.

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