NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Detroit has the Western Conference standings right in the dressing room right where none of the Red Wings can miss the nightly updates.
The way the Central Division teams are playing this season, it’s a tote board that changes daily and almost hourly. The standings bear close watching because the team that wins the division may very well wind up as the Western Conference’s top seed come playoff time.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland says the Central might be the best in the NHL with four of the West’s top six teams and four of the league’s best 12.
“We play Nashville three more times, Chicago three more times and St. Louis once more,” Holland said. “Ultimately, the record in those games—which are really four-point games—will go a long way toward determining the final standings. I think it’s great that we’re all pushing each other. It’s a great race that adds a lot of intrigue to the last 25 games or so of the regular season.”
Through Sunday’s games, Detroit sits atop the West with 76 points followed closely with St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago at Nos. 4, 5 and 6 separated by 11 points.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz said the division has been a blessing by forcing the Predators to play at a very high level to chase Detroit and St. Louis once the Blues started winning with new coach Ken Hitchcock.
“I talk to Ken Hitchcock quite a bit as a friend and text Babs once in a while,” Trotz said of Detroit coach Mark Babcock. “We roll our eyes. He says, ‘We’re winning every game, we can’t pull away from anybody.’ That’s what it is. It’s great. … I think all the teams in the Central Division are capable of doing some big-time damage. You’ve just got to be good in your division, and so far we have.”
The Predators had the NHL’s best have the best record in the division at 12-2-2 and will be tested starting Tuesday night when they host Chicago before travelling to Detroit on Friday night. The Red Wings just tied the NHL record Sunday night with a 20th straight home win by beating Philadelphia 4-3.
The chase means scrapping for every single point.
“It’s going to be a battle until the end because in the end, we always have to play against St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago,” Predators forward Martin Erat said. “Other teams have maybe a bit more free passes.”
Trotz said he expected St. Louis to be a good team this season and credits his friend Hitchcock with simplifying the Blues’ approach.
“They bought in, and that’s their identity,” Trotz said. “Chicago is a team that’s always there and obviously Detroit’s there every year. We were probably a question mark in everybody’s minds, but we’ve gotten better. … We’re a lot faster. I think we’re a lot deeper and we’re a team that’s going to be better not just this year but next year and the following year.”
The Blues are almost as good at home as Detroit, going 24-3-4. But they are 0-4-0 against Nashville this season, including a 3-1 loss on Feb. 4. Trotz credits goalie Pekka Rinne with stealing two of those divisional wins. Hitchcock has his own theory.
“You’re not going to beat Nashville in Nashville on Saturday night. This is like the Coliseum in Rome coming into this place on Saturday night,” Hitchcock said.
Then there’s Chicago, a team that stood atop the West on Jan. 18 with 62 points followed by Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville stacked at Nos. 4, 5 and 6. The Blackhawks lost their eighth straight on Saturday night 3-0 at Phoenix for their longest skid since 2007-08, and they haven’t won since Jan. 20 when they beat Florida.
“No one’s running away from it,” Chicago forward Jonathan Toews said. “We’re looking each other in the eye and we’re expecting every single guy to be better and pick up the slack and that’s what we’ve got to do. We can’t hide from these problems. We have to face them and deal with them.”
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks have given up a lot of ground.
“We still have got some big games coming up and some tough games,” Quenneville said. “We’ve got to find a way to win a game to get some form of confidence back in ourselves and our game.”
Because winning in the Central Division means being among the NHL’s best.
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage and Noah Trister in Detroit, Pat Graham in Denver and R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.