Warren Wimmer – Icon SMI)
In a division like the Central, where there are four teams in a dog fight for conference positioning, teams need certain players to step up and be major factors as the playoffs draw near.
Here are five Central division players that will look to play key roles in the stretch drive for their respective teams:
Corey Crawford, G, Chicago Blackhawks
A week ago, Crawford was performing as the top player in the division when he rattled off four consecutive victories in goal for the Blackhawks. A week later and Crawford is back to playing the inconsistent hockey that has plagued him all season. Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville badly wants to put his faith in Crawford as the team’s starter, but that faith is being put to the test. If the club hopes to at the very least remain the sixth seed in the West, they will need Crawford to be more like the netminder that was excellent against Vancouver in last year’s thrilling first-round series, and a lot less like the one that was pulled in last night’s win over Toronto.
Patric Hornqvist, RW, Nashville Predators
A highly underrated player throughout his career, Hornqvist struggled in the first few months of the season but began to pick his game up in late January. In February he has been one of the better Predators forwards with three goals and six points in eight games, and is quietly tied for the team lead with 18 goals. Although Nashville has been a much better offensive team this year than in the past, they would benefit greatly if Hornqvist can raise his game to that of his 2009-2010 season when he scored 30 goals and totalled 51 points.
Duncan Keith, D, Chicago Blackhawks
Over the past few seasons, Duncan Keith has been the straw that stirs the drink for the Chicago Blackhawks. While he remains without question the team’s top blueliner, Keith’s numbers have fallen off considerably since his Norris-winning campaign two years ago. It is hard to ask for much more from him, but if he can again become the dominant player he was in that season then the Blackhawks’ playoff aspirations will be much better served.
Chris Stewart, RW, St. Louis Blues
It is hard to imagine that the Blues have become such a good team despite the struggles that one of their top offensive players has endured. In each of his past two seasons, Chris Stewart registered 28 goals and had 64 and 53 points, but through 60 games this year the big power forward has just 14 goals and 25 points. As a team, the Blues have already shown that the sky is the limit for them this year. If they can get a guy like Stewart to start playing at the level he is capable of, it will only make them that much better.
Henrik Zetterberg, LW, Detroit Red Wings
Without Pavel Datsyuk, who continues to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery, Zetterberg is without question the player head coach Mike Babcock will lean on to carry the load up front. Although the 31-year-old likely won’t reach the 80 points he put up last year, Zetterberg is often at his best towards the end of the season and then into the playoffs. With five points in his last two games, Zetterberg as expected is providing the offense needed in Datsyuk’s absence. Look for him to continue to elevate his game to a world-class level as Detroit pursues another Central Division title and more.
Central Division Notes
Chicago Blackhawks: In the absence of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane stepped up with a big game in the win over Toronto last night. Kane was the most dangerous player on the ice for either team, scoring the game-tying goal and then assisting on Marian Hossa’s goal that put the Blackhawks ahead for good.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Small but talented forward Cam Atkinson continues to get a long look and will skate on the Blue Jackets’ second line against Colorado tonight. The 22-year-old had 29 goals in 50 games with Springfield in the AHL and will spend the rest of the season auditioning for a spot on next year’s roster
Detroit Red Wings: The trading of Mike Commodore and injuries to Nick Lidstrom and Jonathan Ericsson has made for a much different looking Red Wings blueline. Jakub Kindl, Doug Janik and Brendan Smiith were all in the lineup on Tuesday against Colmubus and will likely be in again when the team hosts Minnesota on Friday.
Nashville Predators: Winners of five of their last six, the Predators have been on a real roll of late and are beginning to garner the feel of a team that is going to be a very tough out come playoff time. Off until Saturday, the club will look to extend their three-game win streak against the Southeast-leading Florida Panthers.
St. Louis Blues: Spearheading the attack with two goals in last night’s win over the Edmonton Oilers, Andy McDonald continues to provide the Blues with a welcomed jolt of offense. The 34-year-old now has five goals and three assists in 10 games since making his February 12th return from a concussion.