NHL Central Division roundup: Three-team race for first place


NHL Central Division roundup: Three-team race for first place

The Central Division race is just getting started, with the Blackhawks, Blues and Stars closing out February all within two points of each other for the top spot. Let's review the month.

Chicago: After a hot month of January, the Blackhawks finished February with a 6-4-1 record, slightly taking their foot off the gas pedal, presumably to conserve some energy for the stretch run and postseason. They also lost Marian Hossa midway through the month, which threw a wrench in the lines. But once he, and Marcus Kruger, returns, there may not be a deeper forward group than the Blackhawks, who loaded up for another Stanley Cup run with the additions of Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise at the trade deadline, along with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

Colorado: The Avalanche dropped four straight games to kick off the month of February, but concluded by winning five of their last eight. They slipped to the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, and they are by no means a lock to stay there. To make sure they do though, general manager Joe Sakic added Mikkel Boedker to an already-speedy forward group and Eric Gelinas for some depth on the blue line, which was a necessity if they plan on keeping up with teams in their division.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Dallas: It appeared that the Stars reverted back to their dominant ways after winning six of their first seven games in February, including important victories against Colorado, Minnesota, Chicago, Washington, and Nashville, but they ended on a sour note, picking up just one win in their final seven contests. They allowed at least three goals in six of those games, and in three of them they gave up six or more, watching their goals against average sink to 2.84, which ranks No. 23 in the league. In an effort to patch up a subpar defense, the Stars traded for defenseman Kris Russell and paid a large price to get him in giving up Jyrki Jokipakka, Brett Pollock and a second-round pick that could turn into a first-rounder if Dallas reaches the Conference Final and Russell plays in at least 50 percent of the games.

Minnesota: What a roller coaster February it was for the Wild, who fired head coach Mike Yeo after losing eight consecutive games, and 13 of 14 dating back to January. John Torchetti was named the interim coach, and they proceeded to win four straight games, scoring at least four goals in each of them. But then they followed it up with a three-game losing streak, ending the honeymoon phase. Still, after everything that's happened, the Wild find themselves only two points behind Colorado for the final wild card spot in the West with a game in hand. They're very much still in the thick of the playoff race and won't be an easy out if they continue to play the right way under Torchetti.

Nashville: The Predators are taking a nine-game point streak and a four-game winning streak into March, and have leapfrogged the Avalanche for the first wild card position in the West by five points with a game in hand. What's even scarier is that the Predators are controlling 52.6 percent of even-strength shot attempts, which ranks fifth in the league, but own a team shooting percentage of 6.82, which ranks in the bottom 10. That suggests puck luck hasn't been in their favor, and the tide could turn down the stretch. If Pekka Rinne has indeed turned back into the Pekka Rinne that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist last year, this is not a team to sleep on come April.

[MORE: NHL Power Rankings: Trade deadline edition]

St. Louis: Injuries keep plaguing the Blues, yet they keep finding ways to overcome them. Once one guy returns, another goes down. And these aren't just depth players. They're important ones. In the past, it would have derailed them, but not this year. All season long it's been about Chicago and Dallas for the Central Division lead, but the Blues consistently hung around and have pulled themselves into that race with a solid February, going 8-4-1 despite losing Brian Elliott and Alex Pietrangelo. Jaden Schwartz, who missed the majority of the first half of the season with an ankle injury, returned to the lineup and has given this team some additional pop.

Winnipeg: The Jets made the right decision by dealing Andrew Ladd and retrieving assets for a team that's still thinking about the big picture. Marko Dano, a first-round pick in 2016 and a conditional third-round pick in 2018 which could turn into a second-rounder if the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup is a nice haul for a player that just reached the back-nine of the age of 30. Winnipeg now has two first-rounders for the second straight draft, barring a draft day trade.

Previous roundups: October | November December January

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'


Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

It was a rare sight to see the Blackhawks in a shootout on Wednesday night.

It was just the second time this season — and first time at the United Center — that the Blackhawks made it past 3-on-3 overtime. 

The last came on Dec. 2, 2017, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Stars in Dallas. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks were on the other end, beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a seven-round shootout. Nick Schmaltz netted the game-winner.

"We'll take it," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought we had a decent game tonight. Overtime not so good, I liked the shootout victory, Fors made some big saves for us particularly as the game got deeper. Our third was OK, I thought our first two were way better, and overtime we gave up some high quality, some bells were rings for a bit there. But it was nice to see the shootout win."

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, recording another multi-point game, his 16th of the season.

"I mean we need every point we can get at this point," Kane said. "There's still belief in this locker room. Obviously we need to go on quite a run and have a big record here down the stretch. But take it a game at a time and nice to get two points."

Anton Forsberg was a big reason the Blackhawks even recorded those two points. The 25-year-old netminder stopped 34 of 36 shots and made a handful of big saves down the stretch.

"It was really nice to get a win for sure," Forsberg said. "I would love to have a lot more wins, but right now just gotta look forward and get as many wins as possible."

Added Quenneville: "I think it was good for him to win a game the way he did. Lot of shots were on the line, as we progressed, got deeper, hitting the point first was big for him and for us and then finding a way to get the extra one was a good win."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?