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

Four takeaways: Blackhawks on wrong side of history in loss to Lightning


Four takeaways: Blackhawks on wrong side of history in loss to Lightning

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Blackhawks on wrong side of history 

Earlier this year the Blackhawks made history by appearing in five straight overtime games to start the season, something no team in NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB history has ever done.

But Sunday they found themselves on the wrong side of it after allowing 33 shots on goal in the second period alone. It tied a franchise high for most given up in a single period — March 4, 1941 vs. Boston — and is the most an NHL team has allowed since 1997-98 when shots by period became an official stat.

"It's pretty rare to be seeing that much work in a period," said Cam Ward, who had a season-high 49 saves. "But oh man, I don't even know what to say to be honest. It's tough. We know that we need to be better especially in our home building, too. And play with some pride and passion. Unfortunately, it seemed like it was lacking at times tonight. The old cliche you lose as a team and overall as a team we weren't good enough tonight."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was a tough, tough period in all aspects. I don’t think we touched the puck at all and that was the part that was disturbing, against a good hockey team."

2. Alexandre Fortin is on the board

After thinking he scored his first career NHL goal in Columbus only to realize his shot went off Marcus Kruger's shin-pad, Fortin made up for it one night later and knows there wasn't any question about this one.

The 21-year-old undrafted forward, playing in his his fifth career game, sprung loose for a breakaway early in the first period and received a terrific stretch pass by Jan Rutta from his own goal line to Fortin, who slid it underneath Louis Domingue for his first in the big leagues. It's his second straight game appearing on the scoresheet after recording an assist against the Blue Jackets on Saturday.

"It's fun," Fortin said. "I think it would be a little bit more fun to get your first goal [while getting] two points for your team, but I think we ... just have to [turn the page to the] next chapter and just play and be ready for next game."

3. Brandon Saad's most noticeable game?

There weren't many positives to take away from this game, but Saad was certainly one of them. He had arguably his best game of the season, recording seven shot attempts (three on goal) with two of them hitting the post (one while the Blackhawks were shorthanded).

He was on the ice for 11 shot attempts for and five against at 5-on-5, which was by far the best on his team.

"He started OK and got way better," Quenneville said of Saad. "Had the puck way more, took it to the net a couple of times, shorthanded."

4. Special teams still a work in progress

The Blackhawks entered Sunday with the 29th-ranked power play and 25th-ranked penalty kill, and are still working to get out from the bottom of the league in both departments. In an effort to change up their fortunes with the man advantage, the Blackhawks split up their two units for more balance.

They had four power-play opportunities against Tampa Bay and cashed in on one of them, but it didn't matter as it was too little, too late in the third period — although they did become the first team to score a power-play goal against the Lightning this season (29 chances).

"Whether we're looking for balance or we're just looking for one to get hot, I think our power play has been ordinary so far," Quenneville said before the game. "We need it to be more of a threat."

Four more minor penalties were committed by the Blackhawks, giving them eight in the past two games. That's one way they can shore up the penalty kill, by cutting back on taking them.

Blackhawks tie franchise record for shots on goal allowed in one period


Blackhawks tie franchise record for shots on goal allowed in one period

Well, things could be going better for the Blackhawks during Sunday's game against the Lightning.

In the second period Sunday, the Blackhawks surrendered 33 shots on goal, tying a franchise record for most in a single period. The previous instance occurred March 4, 1941 against the Boston Bruins, a game that the Blackhawks lost 3-2.

While the Blackhawks tied a franchise record for shots on goal allowed, they actually set an NHL record at the same time. The NHL did not begin recording shots on goal as an "official" statistic until the 1997-98 season.

Consequentially, Sunday's 33 shots on goal allowed in the second period is the "official" record, even though the Blackhawks accomplished the "feat" nearly 80 years ago. Confusing, huh? 

Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, they also surrendered three goals and scored zero in addition to the plethora of shots on goal allowed. They recorded just six shots on goal in the second period themselves, trailing 4-1 by the time the third period started.