Hot Winter Race In The NHL Central Division

The race of the NHL’s Central Division title is red-hot, with St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago all within one point of each other. All three teams are right near the top of the conference overall, with only Vancouver joining them among the West’s leaders. With the Midwest trio likely to battle this all the way into spring, the Notebook takes a look at their strengths and weaknesses.

For those who don’t follow hockey regularly, here’s a general statistical guide. If we look at the middle of the league as a benchmark, you can see an average goalie gives up 2.41 goals per game and has a 91.9% save percentage. If you look at the 30th spot in the individual rankings for goals and assists, you would see 17 goals and 24 assists. I chose 30 as the cutoff point, since that can presume you’re capable of being the #1 option for a team if talent were equally distributed.

St. Louis Blues:  The Blues do it with defense, ranking 2nd in the NHL in goals allowed, and when you talk defense here that’s not a code-word for “goalie.” Jaroslav Halak is average in when it comes to making saves, but defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaicovo lead up a team that is the best in the league at preventing shots. You can beat Halak, but you’ve got to find a way to test him first. This speaks well of St. Louis as a team, but in terms of the playoffs, there’s usually a few key moments when a goalie has to put his team on his back and put them over the top. Right now it’s fair to be skeptical of whether the Blues can win it all with Halak in net. And the offense will not carry them, not even in the regular season. They get a decent number of shots per game, but the relative lack of punch makes one wonder about the quality of those shots. Are they getting good screens on the opposing goalie? Are they getting rebounds shots off the goalie, ones that have a much higher chance of success? When a team is 7th in the NHL in shots taken, but only 19th in goals per game, those are the questions that come to mind.

Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago is the reverse of St. Louis in that the 2010 Stanley Cup champs rely on their offense, especially on the right wing, where Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane keep steady pressure on opposing defenses. Hossa is a solid all-around offensive player, while Kane piles up assists. Center Jonathan Toewes is productive both scoring and passing. Defensively, the Blackhawks are the league’s best at preventing shots, but they are subpar in the bottom line of keeping the puck out of the net. Goalie Corey Crawford is what’s standing between the Windy City and another championship run. If you think a team can overcome problems at this spot, take a look at last year’s Philadelphia Flyers, who eventually imploded because they couldn’t get stability in goal.

Detroit Red Wings: Hockey’s perennial power is the most complete team in this group, even if they’re the one that’s one point behind right now and headed for a #5 seed in the playoffs if the season started today (Division winners are locked into the 1-2-3 spots). The Red Wings get excellent goaltending from Jimmy Howard and the defensemen, led by veteran Nicklas Lidstrom makes sure Howard isn’t overly taxed. Detroit is outstanding in 5-of-5 play when no penalty is in effect, and they’re also among the league’s best at cashing in power play opportunities. Their biggest flaw is a poor penalty-kill team, something that leaves them vulnerable in tightly officiated games and the lack of a clear # 1 scoring option offensively, although isn’t nearly the problem it would be for a basketball team. While this writer is a Boston fan, Detroit is a team I’ve always liked and I not only hope they’ll win this division, but I believe it will happen.