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Central Division Weekly Roundup: Log jam at the top heading into final games

Three points separate the top three teams in the division, and the Dallas Stars are knocking on the door for fourth place.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

1. Carolina Hurricanes: .722 P% (30-10-5) 65 Points

The Canes have to be happy that they split the season series with the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 4-3-1 record. The Lightning also came away with a 4-3-1 record so both teams came out even on standings points. The Canes aren’t done yet, they now go to Sunrise, Florida to finish the season series against the current second-place team in the central. The Canes still hold the biggest advantage, two games in hand, over the Panthers.

The most recent series against the Lightning also showed why the Canes had put so much emphasis on adding physicality and size at the trade deadline. The Hurricanes have often sat back while teams have taken liberties with them (look at the Boston series last year in the bubble). Over the last two games, they had two fights and Jani Hakapnaa delivered some good hits without sacrificing play on the ice.

Andrei Svechnikov had been going through a slump with one goal in 11 games from April 1-12. His luck turned around against the Nashville Predators on Thursday, which started a three-game goal streak that came to an end last night. It is easy to see that when Svechnikov stops scoring he puts more pressure on himself and gets increasingly frustrated with each penalty and missed chance. This has taken the monkey off his back and gotten him back to his natural game.

2. Florida Panthers: .691 P% (30-12-5) 65 Points

The Panthers head into the final series against the Canes on a three-game winning streak. They have also won four of their last five games, with their last consecutive losses coming against Carolina. With a 5-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets last night, the Panthers closed out that season series with a 7-0-1 record. Last night also showed that the Panthers now have a three-headed monster in goal with the addition of Spencer Knight.

Knight was drafted by the Panthers 13th overall in the 2019 draft and signed with Florida after completing his college season at Boston College. Knight won his first NHL start last night in the winning effort against the Blue Jackets. He stopped 33 of the 34 shots he faced, earning a .971 save percentage. This will make the thought of losing Chris Driedger in the Expansion Draft or free agency easier to swallow.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning: .674 P% (30-14-2) 62 Points

The Lightning are now down three points in the standings with only one game in hand over the Panthers and having played one more game than the Hurricanes. The Lightning now have to make up more than a game against the top teams, so Tampa will be rooting for regulation endings in the Canes/Panthers series. They also have to do this without Steven Stamkos, who is on LTIR and out until May with a lower-body injury. His absence could mean Nikita Kucherov could return before the playoffs.

One thing to watch for the Lightning is the durability of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has now started seven of their last eight games, including playing both sides of the back-to-back against the Canes. They have not had a suitable backup this season which has caused them to go 3-6-1 when Vasilevskiy has the night off. Tampa still has two more back-to-back sets remaining in its 10 remaining games, just how many of those can they afford to give Vasilevskiy off to keep him fresh for a potential playoff run.

4. Dallas Stars: .556 P% (19-14-12) 50 Points

The Dallas Stars have confirmed that they will be without Ben Bishop and Alexander Radulov for the rest of the season. While Radulov was able to play games this year, he now needs surgery to repair a core muscle. Dallas is still hoping to get back Tyler Seguin before the end of the season. Seguin has joined the team for its upcoming road trip against the Detroit Red Wings.

Seguin’s return could spell bad news for the Canes. While the Predators were deemed the hottest team in the NHL, the Stars still put together a 13-8-8 record since March and they are solidly in fourth place in the division with a 60% chance to make the playoffs over the Predators. Seguin is a 50 point per year scorer and recorded two goals and 11 assists in the playoffs last season. He will now have to be another player for the Canes to game plan around in the first round if they hold on to the top seed.

5. Nashville Predators: .543 P% (25-21-1) 51 Points

With a 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks the Predators, their winning ways are back on. Since March 15, the Predators have a record of 14-5-0 with two of their losses coming against the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s the second-best record in the league, only behind the Colorado Avalance, who have had a 14-1-2 record and 30 standings points. The Predators have still been led by their team defense and goaltending. Their 88.9% penalty kill has been the second best in the league over this time.

Juuse Saros has still been the best goalie in the league over this time. His .951 sv% and 1.59 GAA both rank first since the midway point of March. Really their only sustained blemish was their two-game mini-sweep at the hands of the Canes. They have not fallen off since and are still a dangerous team. The Predators do have two more games against the Canes; their last two of the season to avoid getting fully swept by Carolina.

6. Chicago Blackhawks: .511 P% (21-20-5) 47 Points

With the Predators on a hot streak in the last month and the Dallas Stars playing well, the Chicago Blackhawks’ playoff chances are all but dead. They now stand solidly sixth in playoff odds with just one game in hand on the Preds, who sit four points ahead of them and two more games played than the Stars, who are a point ahead. The Blackhawks can still look at this season as a success while they expected to never be close to the playoffs, they have at least had a reason to hold their heads high in portions of the season.

The Blackhawks have only had one month with a winning record, February. In that month they went 9-3-1, but have since had a record of just 9-13-1. In both March and April, they faced Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina a combined 11 times with just a 4-6-1 record. They also faced Nashville four times, losing each meeting. Their January and February were largely boosted by the number of games they played against the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, which was 12 times. The Blackhawks embody the odd scheduling differences that went into this season.

7. Detroit Red Wings: .406 P% (16-25-7) 39 Points

The Detroit Red Wings made the biggest trade of the deadline when they traded Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals. Ever since the trade, Mantha has played notably well with the Caps. However, Vrana has gone under the radar with Detroit, largely because of their position in the standings. Vrana has been playing well for the Red Wings. He has played just two games with the Wings but has already recorded a goal. He is also seeing a larger role, averaging around four more minutes per game than he was in Washington. The only issue is that he missed his third game with an illness.

The Red Wings have also been seeing a good, consistent performance out of Evgeny Svechnikov. He has had the second-best Corsi on the team in the month of April at 54%. While he has just had one assist, he is working to prove himself defensively to see more minutes. He is now finally seeing over 10 minutes of ice time per game, but if he shows his value in the defensive zone, he is much more likely to see an increased role in the future.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets: .406 P% (15-24-9) 39 Points

The Columbus Blue Jackets have struggled in the last week since the trade deadline but that was to be expected. They have lost seven straight games Since April 8. Their five straight losses after the deadline were to be expected after they traded some of their most important players at the deadline. This is better news for them, seeing as this gives them a chance at a better draft pick for the upcoming draft. This has now seen them fall down to tie the Red Wings at 25th in the league in the standings. One of the better things that also happened with the Blue Jackets over the trade deadline was making their roster younger on average.

With the upcoming expansion draft, this was a very crucial time to do this. As a refresher, players in their first two years will not need to be protected, which means they have the ability to protect more of the players they would want to keep for the long run. Looking through the roster, that means they will really only need to expose two players that play significant time for them, Dean Kukan and Eric Robinson. The Blue Jackets are very much in the same position as the Hurricanes during the last expansion draft, which saw them lose nothing in the long term while they were building and close to success in the future.