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Central Division Weekly Roundup: Florida Teams Rise to the Top

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Between the Lightning and Panthers, the state of Florida have only lost two games in regulation.

Carolina Hurricanes v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

1. Tampa Bay Lightning: 19 Points (9-1-1)

The Lightning’s most recent loss was against the Hurricanes on Jan. 28 and they have now rattled off six straight wins and made it look easy. However, all six of those games have come against the bottom two teams in the division. In three games against teams with a winning record they are just 1-1-1. However, against the bad teams, they haven’t even been close. Eight of the Lightning’s nine wins have been by two or more goals. They can more than afford to drop some of the tougher games when they are getting the job done against the bottom of the division.

The Lightning are led by Steven Stamkos who is clearly at full strength for the first time in a couple of years. It just reminds you how much of our memory is short-term when thinking about players. They are without Nikita Kucherov, who has been out all year with an injury, but it's no problem when Stamkos is putting up six goals and seven assists in just 11 games. While it's bad timing for the Canes for Stamkos to be back to full power, on the human side, it is great to see his career get back on track.

2. Florida Panthers: 16 Points (7-1-2)

The Panthers finally got a great performance from Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a 31-save performance last night. Bobrovsky’s 4-0-1 record is the second-longest point streak to start a season since John Vanbiesbrouck started 6-0-3 in the 1996-1997 season. Bob had a tough start to the season with a sub .900 save percentage but since the start of February, the Panthers have been almost impossible to score against. Both goalies have started two games with Chris Driedger posting a .933 sv% and Bobrovsky a .939 sv%.

On the offensive side, it is insane that Alexander Barkov keeps flying under the radar. Every season it seems like he earns someone a huge paycheck. This offseason, Evgenii Dadonov signed a three-year, $15 million contract after scoring 53 goals over the last two seasons on the top line of the Panthers. The next candidate for this Barkov induced contract is Carter Verhaeghe, who has six goals and nine points in his first nine games on the top line. He had nine goals and 13 points in the entirety of last season. Safe to say he will be in line for a raise after next season.

3. Chicago Blackhawks: 16 Points (6-4-4)

When the Canes lost to the Blackhawks, on paper, it was frustrating. On paper, the Blackhawks look terrible and are expected to be at the bottom of the division, but seeing them in action they looked impressive. They forced the Canes to play their game and settle for dump ins rather than controlled zone entries.

There were two main standouts on the team. First, Pius Suter looked really good and did record a power-play goal against the Canes. Last night he also scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Dallas Stars. The Blackhawks’ rookie goaltender, Kevin Lankinen, has also been great all season. He has a .933 sv% in nine games started and ranks sixth in the league of goalies who have started four or more games. They have to be extremely happy that Lankinen has really taken this opportunity and thrived.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets: 15 Points (6-5-3)

Everything around the Blue Jackets has been a whirlwind over the past three days. The new acquisition of Patrik Laine has already produced three goals in his last four games for the Blue Jackets, but he was benched with 6:19 left in the second period in the Blue Jackets win on Monday. This was with the Jackets tied for most of a game in which they could have relly used a win (they got it anyway).

Yesterday, Mikko Koivu announced his retirement from the NHL. This comes after the center signed with the Blue Jackets this offseason. This happened just after the Athletic’s Aaron Portzline suggested on the radio that coach John Tortorella may be the one that wants out of Columbus. To rub salt in the wounds, the addition of Max Domi this offseason looks rough right now as he has struggled, and Josh Anderson has eight goals for the Montreal Canadiens.

5. Carolina Hurricanes: 14 Points (7-3-0)

The Carolina Hurricanes were in a unique situation on Monday with a late scratch to Vincent Trocheck, they had to play down a man for an entire game. Trocheck was sorely missed in the game. While the Canes were able to score a couple of goals, they just didn't have a dangerous lineup from top to bottom.

You also can’t mention Monday’s game without the play of Alex Nedeljkovic. Ned had his first start of the season and will likely see more play this season with the injury to Petr Mrazek. The Canes have to keep James Reimer healthy and rested and Ned is key in that plan. Ned only let up two goals in the normal course of play (along with a penalty shot), which included a bizarre bounce that he almost recovered to snag. His angles were sharp and he will settle in better with more game time.

6. Dallas Stars: 13 Points (5-2-3)

The Dallas Stars started off red hot with a four-game win streak, but their season has gone off the rails as of late. In February, they have just a 1-1-2 record which has seen them fall from tied from first place in the division to sixth. Their underlying PDO would say that the Stars of February are the real Stars. With this being the case, the Stars will have to find a way to win these one-goal games that they have been on the wrong side of this month.

The Stars were without their starting goalie, Anton Khudobin, on Sunday. Khudobin was suspended for a game by the team for being late to a practice. There is no bad blood between the staff and the goalie as he stated “I talked to the coaches. All fine, all settled, so I’m back to normal.” The Stars lost the game without Khudobin in overtime. Jake Oettinger started in his place and played well, making 33 saves on 35 shots.

7. Nashville Predators: 10 Points (5-8-0)

The Nashville Predators are struggling to get consistency in net. To start the season, Juuse Saros started five of the Predators’ first eight games but has been on the bench since a 5-2 loss against the Lighting last Monday. Now the Preds have turned to Pekka Rinne, who was certainly looked to be the backup playing out the last year of his contract. Since the start of February, he has seen his play improve from his season-long .893 sv% to a .951 sv% this month.

The issue for the Preds moving forward is they aren’t going to be able to make any big roster tweaks to fix any issues in their roster. They have an aging core with Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula as UFAs in a season where no one wants to take salary. So that makes it harder for them to find younger pieces to mix in.

8. Detroit Red Wings: 8 Points (3-9-2)

The Red Wings are in a season that only mostly bad things can happen, just think Buffalo the last few seasons. They have no chance to make the playoffs, but also have to try to keep a mostly young core of players motivated and hungry for future seasons. If they fail to keep the players motivated, they can end up with a complacent culture that’s more than happy with losing games.

Last week, the Red Wings were able to snap their eight-game winless streak with a 4-1 win against the Florida Panthers and also handed Florida its first regulation loss. However, there was a notable absence in that game, Anthony Mantha. Mantha was healthy scratched by head coach Jeff Blashill. The Red Wings don’t have much firepower and Mantha is the second-highest scorer on the team. Before getting scratched, he had four points in his last five games and had a three-game goal streak that came to an end against Tampa Bay before getting benched. With so many struggles on the ice it seems like a weird decision to bench the 26-year-old without a public explanation.