NHL Central Division roundup: Blackhawks take control in January


NHL Central Division roundup: Blackhawks take control in January

The standings in the Central Division took a major turn of events in January after the Blackhawks surged to the top while the Stars mightily cooled off. Let's review the month.

Chicago: The Blackhawks kicked off the new year by winning 10 straight games, which was a continuation of, what turned out to be, a franchise-record 12-game winning streak that began in late December. They closed out the month with a 1-3-0 record, but ultimately gained control of the Central Division for the first time this season, sitting three points above the Stars. Corey Crawford added two more shutouts in January, increasing his total to a league-leading seven. 

Colorado: In our December roundup, we hinted that January could be an opportunity for the Avalanche to climb into a playoff spot with six divisional opponents on the schedule. They did exactly that, taking 10 of a possible 12 points against their Central Division foes, and have ascended into the first wild card spot in the Western Conference. A majority of the credit should go to Semyon Varlamov, who finished the month by allowing just four goals in his last four starts, all of which resulted in wins. During that span, he registered a .971 save percentage. February will be a month for the Avalanche to prove they're here to stay.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Dallas: "The Stars are showing no signs of slowing down, and don't expect them to any time soon" is what we wrote in last month's roundup regarding Dallas' season so far. Apparently not. But we also wrote: "The only team that can prevent the Stars from not winning the Central is themselves." While they certainly built a large cushion, the Stars became victims of taking their foot off the gas pedal, going 3-6-2 in January and have seen the Blackhawks take over the No. 1 seed in not just the Central Division, but the Western Conference as well. The good news is, the Stars still control their own destiny right now, trailing Chicago by three points with three games in hand. But the race is just beginning.

Minnesota: After finishing December with a 9-3-2 record, the Wild did a 180 in January, where they went 3-7-3. They sit one point out of the final wild card spot, which isn't bad, but it's not good considering they held a seven-point cushion entering the month. Expect general manager Chuck Fletcher to acquire a top-six forward, ideally a No. 1 center they've desperately been looking for, at the trade deadline, as the Wild have scored just 23 goals in their last 13 games (an average of 1.77 per game).

Nashville: The Predators pulled the trigger on the biggest blockbuster trade of the season, trading 2013 fourth overall pick Seth Jones to Columbus for Ryan Johansen. That's the price you have to pay for a franchise centerman, and so far, it's been a perfect deal for both sides. But the Predators are benefiting from it the quickest. While they struggled out of the gates since the trade, Nashville has won four consecutive games, including five of their last six, as Johansen and linemate James Neal are controlling 58.7 percent of even-strength shot attempts. The results are starting to come.

[MORE: Honda Road Ahead: What will be key to rest of Blackhawks' season?]

St. Louis: The Blues picked up at least a point in nine of their 12 games in January, and did most of it without starting netminder Jake Allen, who suffered a knee injury on Jan. 8 and has been sidelined since. They're still very much in the thick of the Central Division race, and haven't lost any ground, which is crucial in the league's most competitive division. Most importantly, the Blues are expecting to receive a big boost on offense when Jaden Schwartz, who's missed more than three months with an ankle injury, returns to the lineup this month. Four of their first seven games in February will be against Central Division opponents, a chance to collect some important points.

Winnipeg: For the Jets, January essentially proved that they will become sellers at the trade deadline after slipping to the basement of the division. Or did it? It's been reported that general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff would prefer to re-sign both Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, both of whom are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, but if the Jets believe an extension isn't feasible for both sides, they may look to deal one or both. This will be an interesting storyline to follow, and we'll have the answers on Feb. 29.

Previous roundups: October | November December

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.