Barring unexpected late-season collapses, four of the Central Division’s five teams will qualify for the playoffs. As the season enters the final two months, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago appear to be teams that will make up half of the eight Western Conference playoff teams.
All but Chicago have ridden dominant goaltending performances to their outstanding runs in 2011-12. While Jimmy Howard and Pekka Rinne have carried the bulk of the load in Detroit and Nashville, respectively, Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have shared the St. Louis crease.
The Blues have yielded 106 goals this season, just three behind the New York Rangers for best in the NHL. Elliott was named to his first All-Star Game this season, but it is Halak who looks like will be the one to carry the majority of the goaltending load for St. Louis going forward.
Saturday night’s game between the Predators and Blues gave Rinne and Halak an opportunity to square off against each other for the fourth time this season. As anticipated, the goaltending duel was the main attraction. One night after recording his fifth shutout of the season, Halak was tabbed by Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to face the Predators.
Halak gave up two early goals but then stymied the Predators the rest of the way to keep the game within reach. He concluded the game with 34 saves.
While excellent, Halak’s performance was overshadowed by that of Rinne. The 6-foot-5 Finn made a season-high 42 saves in Nashville’s 3-1 win. The win was Rinne’s 11th straight, which extended his own franchise record. He has defeated the Blues in all four of their matchups this season.
He likes the pressure of big games, and he likes to see a lot of pucks sent his way when he is on top of his game.
"It doesn’t happen too often that both teams have almost 40 shots," Rinne said. "There were a lot of scoring chances and not too many goals. Halak played really well, so we have to be happy with the win. It was a party."
Rinne had his winning streak snapped Tuesday night with a shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Despite the minor blemish, Rinne looks primed to take the Predators on his shoulders as they look to return to the playoffs once again this season.
Meanwhile in Motown, Howard has been Detroit’s backbone this season, posting a 32-11-1 record in 44 games played and guiding the Red Wings to the most points in the league. Howard’s 32 wins lead the NHL.
Unfortunately for the Red Wings, Howard will be off the ice for an undetermined period of time after breaking the index finger on his right hand last week in a shootout win at Vancouver.
Currently fourth in the Central and sixth in the West, Chicago has not received consistently great goaltending from either Corey Crawford or Ray Emery. Both goalies have goals-against averages approaching three per game and save percentages of .900.
Despite not receiving great goaltending, the potent Chicago offense has given the team enough goals on most nights to outscore its opponents. Determining whether Crawford or Emery is the one who will take the reins of the team down the stretch and into the playoffs will be a top priority for coach Joel Quenneville, who hopes that one of his two netminders will lead the charge the remainder of the way.
Central Division notes
• The road has been anything but sweet to the Chicago Blackhawks lately. After Tuesday night’s 5-2 loss in Denver to the Avalanche, the Blackhawks have dropped eight straight games away from the United Center. They still have four more road games on their current season-long nine-game road trip. The Blackhawks do not play another home game until the Blues come to Chicago on Feb. 19.
• Columbus center Jeff Carter was activated off of injured reserve Feb. 2 after missing 10 games with a shoulder injury. It was Carter’s second prolonged stint on IR this season. Acquired in an offseason trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, Carter’s name has surfaced in talks related to the upcoming late February trade deadline. Carter may be difficult to move though, as he has 10 years remaining on his contract with an average annual cap hit of $5.3 million.
• With two goals in Saturday’s shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers, Detroit right wing Todd Bertuzzi moved into the NHL’s 300-goal club. Last season, the veteran of more than 1,000 games posted his 400th career assist.
• Nashville’s top offensive line of Mike Fisher, Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat has been pacing the Predators’ recent string of success. Fisher and Erat each have 17 points in their past 18 games. Entering Tuesday, Fisher has scored the game-winning goal in each of Nashville’s past four wins.
• St. Louis defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-1 on Tuesday night, improving its record against Eastern Conference opponents to 10-0-2. The Blues are the only team to earn at least one standings point in every game played against the opposite conference this season.