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

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks


Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a Marcus Kruger redirection goal. The next one was the dagger, a beautiful give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade


Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

COLUMBUS — The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."