the Fifth Line: Centrally Focused

I’m going to lay it out there: I’m focusing on the Western Conference today, primarily on the Central division. It’s not because I’m biased, but… well, okay, I am a little biased. But that’s not why my focus is on the Central. Look at the standings.

See the Eastern Conference standings? Boring. Eight teams are very solidly in the playoff hunt; the other eight teams would need pucks made of four-leaf clovers to join them. The best chance for a surprise is if the Florida Panthers can make up seven points in the standings versus the Boston Bruins.

PanthersBruins-030914-Large

In other words, Luongo would have to beat the Bruins for this to happen.

But the Western Conference is a series of rollercoasters when it comes to the standings — a veritable Wild West, if you will. And the Central division is the posse where all the gunslingers have a shot at the playoffs. Since this is a Chicago-centric publication, we naturally start with the men from the United Center.

Blackhawks Down

Panic is starting to creep into the Blackhawks fanbase. The new year has been rough for the ‘Hawks: 6-8-0 so far, and the quality of those games has been wildly inconsistent. For every dominant win against a top-tier team like Anaheim, there’s gut-churningly awful losses to teams like Edmonton and Minnesota. Should there be worry? Is it just a phase? Is it better to struggle now rather than April? Looking position-by-position, probably the latter. But it has been a weird season…

Forwards

The veterans will be fine. There’s been some bad luck and some fatigue, but it’s not as though Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, and Richards have forgotten how to do the hockey. It’s alarming when these vets gets hosed in relative possession (see also, the recent loss to Minnesota), but shit happens. Saad has been a sparkplug, Teuvo has been a great call-up, and we’re okay without Carcillo. Some of the fourth-liners, though, are worrying. Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith lead the skaters who haven’t scored in 2015. And Joakim Nordstrom is the definition of a “replacement-level player,” if hockey had that stat.

Defense

When Chicago traded Nick Leddy, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the team’s bottom pairing. But rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk was thankfully pretty decent, and the concern was limited to the fact that Michal Rozsival still gets ice time. When TvR suffered a long-term injury back in November, the worries returned, and they’ve only gotten worse in 2015. Rozsival is a giveaway machine, Rundblad has a cannon but is otherwise replacement-level, and the rest of the D corps is not as consistent as one would like.

Goalies

Corey Crawford has been great this season, and Chicago’s backups have been solid. The only worry here is that regression happens, and the defensemen are not helping matters. In fact, it’s almost reassuring to realize that Chicago’s forwards have hit a dry spell, its blue-liners have been sub-optimal, and its goalie numbers regressing all at the same time. Really.

Because here’s the thing: despite the sudden mediocrity, Chicago is still (arguably) the deepest team in the league, and depth goes a long way towards playoff success. Plus, as analytics guru Jen LC pointed out on Twitter, the ‘Hawks have been here before. In fact, this seems to happen every damn season, honestly. If you don’t believe that, she has a chart for you.

(By the way, if you’re not following @RegressedPDO on Twitter, you’re missing out on a lot of really cool insights on hockey and its analysis. It would be sad for you to continue missing out.)

The hope is that this season will be like others were cold stretches are followed by hot streaks and deep playoff runs. Besides, it could be worse — they could be the Los Angeles Kings, who are in desperate need of a LifeAlert bracelet.

Then again, has been a really weird season… and unlike other divisions, there isn’t an awful team in the Central. Maybe worry is a healthy response to possibilities like, oh, say, the Predators winning the President’s Trophy.

Predators Ascendant

I know, I had to take a resting spell after re-reading that last sentence, too. But that’s where we are. About fifty games into the season, and the Anaheim Ducks no longer have the best record. They and the Preds both have 72 points, but Nashville has played one less game, giving them the edge.

Again, the Nashville Predators have the best record in the NHL as I write this. Did not see that one coming.

What’s more, they’ve done with without one of this season’s best players, goaltender Pekka Rinne. Out with an injury since January 13th, Rinne returns tonight to the Nashville lineup. Many a pundit declared that the stretch without their top goalie would be a test for the team — is their success predicated on Rinne? Can they maintain their division lead without him?

It would seem so. In Rinne’s absence, Nashville went 4-2-2, taking 10 of a possible 16 points. It’s wasn’t the best record in the Central during that stretch (St. Louis went a ridiculous 7-0-1), but it definitely meant that Nashville passed the test. Now Pekka Rinne is back, and if his injury doesn’t affect his play, the Preds are likely to relinquish the division lead. Unless…

Ugh, the Blues

As a Midwestern baseball & hockey fan not from St. Louis, I am conditioned to loathe that city’s teams. It hurts to see the Blues with the third-best record in the NHL, even though that’s not been uncommon this decade. St. Louis has the reputation of a tough team, good on defense, and plays a heavy game that wears down opponents. The knock on the Blues was that they could never quite score enough goals to fully capitalize on their strengths — especially in the playoffs.

Which is why the combination of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz is a terrifying thing. The linemates lead their team in goals (26 for Tarasenko, 18 for Schwartz), and Tarasenko is top-ten in the NHL in both goals and points. They’ve been getting solid offense from stalwarts Backes and Steen, as well, so the goals are there this season. Brian Elliot is also quietly having a season that rivals Rinne’s. About the only solace for opponents is that St. Louis still can’t seem to figure out Chicago, and the two teams seem likely to face off in the first round of the playoffs.

Winnipeg is Wild

Winnipeg, on the other hand, is Chicago’s kryptonite. This seems particularly true for the former Blackhawks on Winnipeg’s roster, and definitely true for rookie goalie Michael Hutchinson. The good Mr. Hutchinson continues and amplifies the narrative weaving through all the Central teams: goaltending is critical. A common take on the Jets the last few seasons is that they’d be a lot more competitive if they didn’t have an albatross in goal. Hutchinson has been that non-albatross, and suddenly Winnipeg is a playoff team.

But the Jets aren’t a consistent team. They were red hot, and now they’re colder than a Manitoba blizzard. Hutchinson’s stats have started to regressed to mortal numbers (still better than Pavelec!). Mercurial superstar Evander Kane has been playing well through injury, yet gets scratched for breaking dress code. Most of the playoff experience on the team comes from former Blackhawks who won the Stanley Cup… five years ago.

From a neutral perspective, this is great drama, as a team that seemed to be a lock for a wild card slot is now slipping. On top of that, the bottom three in the Central were playoff teams last year, and all are trying to claw their way back. Despite that, the Jets still have good odds, thanks to the chaos in the Pacific.

Shake-Up in the Pacific

I’ve said that I don’t see Colorado, Dallas, or Minnesota making it out of the Central this season, and I still don’t. My level of certainty, however, has decreased as 2015 continues. It’s not because I think they’re going to overcome Winnipeg for their wild card slot. But the insanity in the Pacific division teams makes me think that it’s slightly possible that one of the bottom three from the Central could catch that last wild card, currently held by Vancouver.

To whit: the Stanley Cup champion Kings are currently 12th place in the West. Of course, if they won tonight, Los Angeles could find itself suddenly 9th place, just three points outside the playoff bubble. That’s the reality of the Pacific division and the Western wild card slots. Colorado, Dallas, and Minnesota all have similar records as the Kings, and I think the Kings are a playoff-calibre team. Which means that I think twelve teams in the West are playoff-calibre, right?

Something like that. Or not. I still think that Calgary is more lucky than good/deep right now, but sometimes that’s enough to make it into the playoffs. I also think that the Central’s bottom three have enough strong points to make up for their glaring weaknesses, not to mention their early- or mid-season stumbles. Get some popcorn, because these races in the West are just getting started, and every Central team as a pony on the track.

-J.

-J.

The entity known as -J. would be at home in a place like Carcosa or Night Vale, but instead lives near a far more dreary place -- Wrigley Field. He is the patron Addisonian of whisk(e)y and tabletop games, and is often adorned with a waistcoat & his ridiculous mustache.

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