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NHL Central Division roundup: Wild gain ground in December

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NHL Central Division roundup: Wild gain ground in December

The standings in the Central Division haven't changed much over the last month, but a lot could change going forward because of what happened in December. Let's recap it.

Chicago: The Blackhawks entered December sitting in third place of the Central Division and exited in the same spot, despite going 9-5-1 in 15 games during the month. Patrick Kane's historic point streak was snapped at 26 games, which set a franchise record and was the longest point streak in the NHL since 1992-93. Corey Crawford also registered three shutouts in one week, increasing his total to a league-leading five, good enough to be named the NHL's No. 1 star for the week ending Dec. 13.

Colorado: The Avalanche lost ground from the get-go after struggling mightily out of the gates, which is why their 9-3-2 record in December still wasn't good enough to vault into a playoff position by the end of the calendar year. Entering Friday, the Avs sit four points out of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. Nearly half (six of their 14) of their games in January will be against division opponents, a chance to pull themselves closer to the playoff pack.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Dallas: The Stars are showing no signs of slowing down, and don't expect them to any time soon. Lindy Ruff has his club playing aggressive, two-way hockey, and they proved they can consistently hang with the toughest competition when they beat Montreal and Minnesota by a combined seven goals, then followed that up with shutout wins over Chicago (4-0) and St. Louis (3-0), and a 5-1 victory over Nashville in a span of 13 days. The only team that can prevent the Stars from not winning the Central is themselves.

Minnesota: Like Colorado, the Wild finished with an identical 9-3-2 record in December and leapfrogged Nashville for fourth in the division. But unlike Colorado, the Wild gained significant ground. They're two points behind Chicago for third, but have three games in hand and are also four points away from St. Louis for second with four games in hand. Realistically, they could easily be second once the games catch up. Credit that to Minnesota's vastly improved defense statistically, which ranks sixth in goals against average (2.36) after entering December ranked in the bottom 10 at 2.77.

Nashville: The Predators went 6-6-3 in December, and keep sliding in a division that's difficult to climb back up in (see Colorado). Despite their position in the standings, the Predators own strong possession numbers, controlling 54.0 percent of shot attempts at even strength, which ranks No. 2 in the league. On top of that, seven of their nine losses were decided by one goal, indicating they've hung in till the end. A couple bounces their way and it could be a different story. Eight of Nashville's next 13 games are against division opponents, which could have a big impact which direction they go in.

[MORE: Look back fast then move on: Five thoughts on the Blackhawks]

St. Louis: The Blues pumped the brakes a bit, finishing December with a mediocre 8-7-1 record and a minus-2 goal differential, yet still find themselves in second place in the division. But not comfortably. The Blackhawks and Wild are right on their tails, and they likely will be all season. St. Louis did, however, close out the calendar year strong, winning six of their last nine games after have just two wins in their first seven games of the month. Every team faces adversity throughout an 82-game grinding season, and to the Blues' credit, they didn't let a slow beginning to the month affect them mentally.

Winnipeg: In our November roundup (see below), we believed December would be an important month for the Jets, whose start to the season raised eyebrows and had general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff weighing his early options on whether to become buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. Entering the new year, Winnipeg is 12 points out of third place in the Central and seven points back from the final wild card spot in the West after going 6-6-0 in December. At this point, signs are pointing towards the Jets selling at the deadline. Now the bigger question is, will that include Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, both of whom are unrestricted free agents at the end of the year?

Previous roundups: October | November

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

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USA TODAY

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

Corey Crawford is back and it didn't look like he skipped much of a beat. The Blackhawks were handed their first regulation loss of the season to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, but the 33-year-old netminder stopped 27 of 30 shots (.900 save percentage) in his season debut and made several timely saves to keep his team in it.

In the larger picture, it was a win based on how well Crawford looked between the pipes.

"Yeah, I think it is," coach Joel Quenneville said after practice on Friday. "It's one of things we were wondering, how he would handle post-game and how he came in today. Very encouraging signs. He felt good in all aspects of what he went through and dealt with, and practiced well today too, so that was good."

The first one is in the books.

But what's the plan going forward? Will Crawford be on a "pitch count" or will they treat him like they have in past seasons when he was healthy?

In the past, Crawford has generally started somewhere in between 55-58 games per season. Part of that has been because of injuries. Another part is the Blackhawks have had reliable backups, which allowed them to give Crawford an extra night off here and there to keep him fresh.

It's not unreasonable, though, to think Crawford could flirt with 50 starts, considering he missed only five games to start the season. And they can still accomplish that by playing it safe.

The Blackhawks have 13 more back-to-backs this season, which gives them the opportunity to start Cam Ward at some point in each of them. That leaves room for another 15 or so starts to sprinkle in for Ward that could serve as rest days for Crawford and still being on track to start around 50.

Obviously, the Blackhawks want to be careful with how much they ask of Crawford because concussions are tricky to deal with and every player responds differently to it.

His return comes at a time where the Blackhawks are slated to play seven games in 11 days after playing just two in the previous 10. Thursday marked the start of that stretch.

"He’ll tell us how he feels and we’ll go from there and make those decisions," Quenneville said.

The Blackhawks have been on record saying they prefer not to carry three goaltenders. But in this case it makes sense. At least in the short term.

Quenneville said Friday that the Blackhawks will reevaluate the situation at the end of the weekend following the beginning of a busy stretch where they'll play three games in four days.

"Yeah, that’s the mindset," he said. "Let’s see how we handle these three in four and then we’ll address it."

Crawford is expected to start on Saturday in Columbus, making it his second start in three days. That's when they'll get a better sense of how he's handling things.

If it were up to him, Crawford said he feels he's prepared for it.

"Yeah, sure," Crawford said. "Why not? I've been working hard with [strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman]. He's got me where I need to be, so I'm in shape right now. Why not?"

Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut

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USA TODAY

Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Jamal Mayers and Charlie Roumeliotis recap Corey Crawford’s season debut after missing nearly 10 months with a concussion.

Mayers talks about the Kitty system that Niklas Hjalmarsson and Vinnie Hinostroza probably dealt with in their returns to Chicago.

The guys also discuss what’s next for Crawford, the upcoming matchup against Artemi Panarin and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Blackhawks’ biggest areas for improvement.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!