First it was Nashville, then St. Louis, now back to Nashville. First place in the Central Division has been a game of musical chairs, but as the final two weeks of the season play out, it appears the Predators have the inside track to the division title.
After it seemed like Nashville was in cruise control to win the Central, they had a difficult 15-game stretch that started in mid-February. The team went 4-9-2 in a stretch that included a six-game losing streak all in regulation. That run saw the Predators play poorly in all areas. Rookie star Filip Forsberg went cold and All-Star goaltender Pekka Rinne wasn’t at his best.
Now fast forward to late March and Nashville has suddenly figured it out again. Saturday afternoon, the Predators became the first team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff spot, beating Washington 4-3. The win was their fourth straight and gives them 101 points with six games to play.
With playoff spot clinched, #Preds focused now on winning first division title. http://t.co/9rktGhdQyZ pic.twitter.com/zqI6B8dQCk
— tnsports (@tnsports) March 28, 2015
Although Nashville leads St. Louis by three points with an extra game played, the difficulty of the Blues’ schedule to the end season may mean a division title for the Predators.
Nashville is one of the best home teams in the NHL, and it finishes the season with four of six on home ice. Only three of those games are against playoff teams.
Meanwhile, the Blues find themselves trying to prevent a similar collapse like the end of last season. A slew of injuries played a major factor in the team losing their last six games of the regular season and losing the Central Division title to Colorado on the last day of the 2013-14 campaign. As a result, the Blues fell to a playoff matchup with Chicago, which ended in six games.
This year, the Blues are hoping to build momentum heading into the playoffs, but their extremely difficult schedule to end the season may prevent that.
In their final 7 games, the Blues will play desperate teams in Calgary, Winnipeg and Minnesota. They will also play a pair with Chicago, which may be a preview of a first round playoff matchup. The remaining two games are with Vancouver and Dallas.
The team will have to be in playoff mode much sooner if they want to still challenge for first place in the Central Division, and simply not finishing the regular season on another losing streak.
@critty91 Nashville is up 3 and has easier schedule. Blues have a shot, but now need help. If Blues win division, they'll have earned it.
— Tom Timmermann (@tomtimm) March 29, 2015
With so many questions surrounding the Blues, Nashville has to be feeling pretty good about their situation. They have managed to recover from a major slide and may still hold on to win the division title.
They may be in a better position, but the Predators are not problem-free either. All-Star defenseman Shea Weber missed Saturday’s game, the first game he’s missed all season. He’s listed as day-to-day but the feeling is the team may be resting their 30-minute per game work horse before the playoffs. He also missed Sunday’s game against the Flames.
Speaking of rest, Predators may also give Rinne a game off before the playoffs begin. Backup Carter Hutton played well when Rinne was hurt earlier in the season. He may play Sunday in the final back to back of the team’s season.
The Central Division has given hockey fans some incredible competition this season. Fans may get some bonus Central Division hockey in the playoffs. Besides the 2nd and 3rd place teams matching up in the playoffs, there’s a good chance the central division winner may play a central wild card team such as Winnipeg or Minnesota.
@GooseTheGander @pwilliamsNHL To borrow one of my favourite clichés from the World Cup, the Central Division is the NHL's "Group of Death".
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) March 29, 2015
If Winnipeg does make the playoffs, they’ll be one of five Central Division teams to qualify for the postseason. As many as four teams may also finish with more than 100 points this season.
No matter what happens in the end, the Western Conference playoff picture will be as intriguing as ever. Fans can only hope that every series will live up to the high expectations and competition level of the Western Conference.