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While the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks tend to receive more press, the Nashville Predators have quietly put together a strong season. Their performance in 2011-12 has not gone unnoticed here, with three of the five Central Division awards going to Predators' players.
Top Forward: Marian Hossa, Chicago Blackhawks – In his previous two seasons with the Blackhawks, Hossa took on more of a two-way role and made sure to take care of his own end before seeking offense. This year, while maintaining his strong defensive play, the 33-year-old stepped up to become the club’s most consistent offensive threat and turned in his most productive season since his 100-point campaign in 2006-07 when he was with the Atlanta Thrashers. The Blackhawks' leading scorer and the second-leading point producer in the Western Conference with 77 points, Hossa has easily been his team's MVP this season as his play at both ends of the ice ranks him as one of the best all-around forwards in the league.
Top Defenseman: Shea Weber, Nashville Predators – Once again, Weber’s outstanding play has him on the short list for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. The 26-year-old Nashville captain has been his usual dominant self, anchoring the Predators blueline with his shut-down defending and offensive ability. His 19 goals and 49 points gives him his most productive season in two years and his current +18 rating is the best of his seven-year career. As has been the case throughout his career, Weber’s stats tell only half the story. His incredible strength and ability to log a ton of minutes, added with his leadership skills, makes his presence invaluable to the Predators.
Top Goalie: Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators – As is the case with Shea Weber being nominated for the Norris, it is becoming old hat for Pekka Rinne to be mentioned among the game’s elite goaltenders. The towering Finn has been the most relied upon netminder out of all this year’s playoff teams, ranking only behind Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller in total minutes played. The NHL’s leader in wins with 42, Rinne’s goals against is up from a year ago but much of that has to do with the increased workload. He has already surpassed his career-high in minutes played by a whopping 300 minutes.
Top Coach: Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues – To say that Ken Hitchcock’s season behind the bench has been incredible would be an understatement. What Hitchcock has done in guiding the St. Louis Blues to one of the best records in the league has been nothing short of spectacular. The odds-on-favorite for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best head coach, Hitchcock took over after the club limped out of the gate under then head coach Davis Payne. Since then, the former Cup-winning coach with the Dallas Stars has employed a defensive strategy that has turned St. Louis into the stingiest team to score against in the league, as well as becoming an unlikely Stanley Cup contender.
Most Valuable Player: Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators – With his often intimidating presence in goal for the Predators, Pekka Rinne is deemed the most valuable player to his team within the Central Division. Although St. Louis goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have more eye-catching individual stats, there is no other goaltender or player more vital to their team’s success than Rinne. He is the backbone of the Predators and someone that can single-handedly win a game or steal a seven-game playoff series. In short, Nashville will go as far as Rinne will carry them.
Central Division Notes
Chicago Blackhawks – Jonathan Toews will travel with the team but will not play against Minnesota tonight. Center David Bolland will also miss tonight’s game with an upper-body injury. The injury is not long-term or serious and Bolland is considered day-to-day.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Coming off a game in which they pounded 54 shots on goal in Tuesday’s loss to Phoenix, the Blue Jackets will hope to deliver a similar effort with better results when they take on the Colorado Avalanche tonight in Denver. The Avalanche still have a slim chance at the playoffs so the game represents another chance for Columbus to play the role of spoiler.
Detroit Red Wings – After falling behind 2-0 in the third period, the Red Wings controlled the remainder of the game against the St. Louis Blues. Johan Franzen scored twice in a span of three minutes, with both goals coming off beautiful passes from Pavel Datsyuk. Todd Bertuzzi then scored the winner in the shootout to lift the Red Wings to a 3-2 win. Now one point ahead of Nashville for fourth-place in the West, Detroit faces a quick turn around on home ice tonight against New Jersey.
Nashville Predators – Pekka Rinne is expected to be back between the pipes tonight after the star netminder missed Tuesday’s game with a cold. Now one point behind Detroit, the Predators face a potential must-win game against the Dallas Stars tonight at the Bridgestone Arena. It is a must-win game in that a Detroit win and a Nashville loss would end any hopes of the Predators getting home ice in the first round of the playoffs.
St. Louis Blues – Brian Elliott finally had his shutout streak snapped last night when Johan Franzen scored at 13:55 of the third period. In what was a playoff-like atmosphere both on the ice and in the stands, the Blues let a two-goal third period lead slip away and went on to lose the shootout in a 3-2 loss to Detroit. The single point puts the club at 107 points, two back of Vancouver for first in the West with both teams having played 80 games.