Central: Strong division sports four playoff squads

By Andrew Sykes

 

Photo: St. Louis Blues captain David Backes will attempt to lead his team out of a late-season funk in their opening playoff series vs. the San Jose Sharks (courtesy of

Ray Carlin/Icon SMI)

In the regular season, the NHL's Central Division ranked along with the Atlantic as the two most competitive divisions in the league. In St. Louis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago, the Central produced four of the top five teams in the Western Conference with all four topping the 100-point plateau.

Each team has at different points in their seasons all shown the capability of being a strong Stanley Cup contender, but they will all be in tough in their first-round playoff matchups. The following is a preview of what can be expected for the Central Division teams in the opening-round of the post-season.

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks

Losers of four of their final five games may cause many to believe that the St. Louis Blues are limping into the playoffs. That could not be further from the truth, however, as the Blues have just recently been able to ice their full lineup.

The surprise team of the NHL this season finishing second in the West with 49 wins and 109 points, the Blues were able to maintain their regular season dominance despite injuries to many key players throughout the year. Now at full strength, those five late season games gave the club the look of a team that was bored with the regular season and ready for playoff hockey. Although they will have been disappointed with the way they finished the year and the fact that they lost the chance at grabbing the top seed in the conference, St. Louis should quickly be able to regain the form they showed for the majority of the season.

In their first-round opponents, the San Jose Sharks, the Blues will be up against an older and more experienced playoff team who advanced to the Western Conference Final just one year ago. Separated by six wins and 13 points in the standings, the Blues and Sharks series may present the most contrasting matchup of all the first-round series’. On one side you have a talented but predominantly inexperienced St. Louis team considered very much to be overachievers, while in the Sharks you have a team of playoff veterans looking to break through and shake off the label of underachievers that followed them around all season.

What the Blues lack in experience, they make up for in having the more well-rounded team, but this has the makings of a close series that will likely be decided by which team is able to produce the big goals in what could be some low-scoring, tight-checking games.

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings

As is the case with the 4-5 matchup in the East, the first-round series between Nashville and Detroit figures to be one that is extremely competitive and ultimately the highest level of play out of all the opening-round sets in the conference. As if both teams winning 48 games and being separated by just two points isn’t evidence enough of how close the two teams are, there is also the fact that the Predators and the Red Wings split their six regular season games.

Based on talent and pedigree, these are two teams that would be better fit for a meeting further down the road, but the series also presents an opportunity for one team to eliminate a major threat to their Cup aspirations in the early going of the post-season.

With names like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Rinne, Weber and Radulov, there will certainly be no shortage of star power in this series, and there will also be no shortage of chess games being played by the team’s head coaches. Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz are two of the game’s great manipulators behind the bench, so you can be sure that they have numerous game-plans already mapped out for every possible scenario and situation.

With both teams possessing the goods to make a deep playoff run, this series is almost impossible to call. Nashville scratched and clawed their way to the fourth seed and the outcome of this series could very well hinge on their ability to win on home ice. Detroit has been poor by their standards on the road and that could come into play if it goes the full seven games.

Also, do not look past the clash between the two MVP’s on either side. If goaltender Pekka Rinne is the best player in the series, advantage Nashville. If Pavel Datsyuk is the best player in the series, advantage Detroit.

(6) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3) Phoenix Coyotes

Despite the fact that the Chicago Blackhawks are the sixth-seed in the West, they will be considered the favorites against the third-seed and Pacific Division champion Phoenix Coyotes due to their higher season point total. It is also a series that could be considered a trap for the Blackhawks as they will have to avoid taking their opponents lightly if they hope to come out on top.

Underestimating their opponents shouldn’t even be a thought, however, because, based on their regular season meetings, the Coyotes should be the favorites rather than the Blackhawks. Phoenix took three of the four regular-season games between the two teams, outscoring Chicago 13-9 in the process. That might not seem like much of a discrepancy at first glance, but if you add in that Phoenix won both games at the United Center then you will certainly raise an eyebrow.

One of the league’s best teams at home, the Coyotes handed the Blackhawks two of their 14 home losses this year and it was no accident. Phoenix had the third most road wins in the Western Conference and proved in-person just how dangerous of a road team they can be.

Chicago is the better team and that is why they are favored, but Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett's defensive approach will present an obstacle for the Blackhawks.

Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix will be key in this series as getting off to a good start will be massive for both sides. If the Blackhawks can pick up even a split then they will be in good position heading home. A healthy Jonathan Toews could also play a big role as his addition will give Chicago more of an advantage up front than they already have.