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Central Division Weekly Roundup: Battle for final playoff spot heats up

With the Nashville Predators winning 10 of their last 12, they have rocketed to the fourth place position in the Division.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1. Carolina Hurricanes: .724 P% (26-9-3) 55 Points

The Carolina Hurricanes moved to first place in the division (in points percentage). The Canes have been re-energized by the return of Petr Mrazek, who has now won both games since returning. He still ranks as the best goalie in the league in both save percentage and goals-against average. In just six games played, he has three shutouts, which is tied for fourth in the league. Philipp Grubauer leads the league with five shutouts in 32 games played.

With Brock McGinn out, Rod Brind’Amour has had to blend the lines. Jesper Fast was up on the top line with Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho. It has been great seeing Fast’s emergence in the past month. In the past 18 games, he has had four goals and six assists, and his 10 points rank seventh on the team since the beginning of March with just one point on the power play. He plays the game right and still has 32 hits in this same time frame, which ranks fifth. Seeing him get the opportunity on the top line has been great and also given the ability to balance the second line.

The second line has also benefitted greatly from getting Vincent Trocheck back. He has played just 10 games since the beginning of March, eight less than his teammates, and still ranks fourth in points and third in goals on the team during this time. His 1.40 points per game does rank highest and he is one of three players over a point per game place. The others are Sebastian Aho and Dougie Hamilton. Now back for crucial games against the Panthers, he registered two points last night and is automatic to score a goal against them tomorrow.

2. Florida Panthers: .700 P% (26-10-4) 56 Points

The Florida Panthers’ six-game win streak ended last night in their loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. There were a lot of questions about how they were going to be able to play after the loss of Aaron Ekblad, but the Panthers have responded well. The Panthers have also been without Anthony Duclair, who has been playing a top-six role but has been in and out of the lineup all season. Duclair has not played since March 30 but is hoping to be able to return on Thursday.

In the past week, the Panthers have also done something that the Canes have been unable to do, sign their top goaltender prospect. The Panthers signed the 13th overall pick from the 2019 NHL draft, Spencer Knight. Knight played his college hockey at Boston College and in his most recent season posted a 16-4-1 record with a .932 save percentage and a 2.18 GAA. He also served as the team USA goalie in the 2021 World Juniors where he also posted a .940 save percentage en route to winning the gold medal. The Panthers are immediately able to make up for a potential loss of Chris Driedger in the expansion draft with this move.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning: .692 P% (26-11-2) 54 Points

The Tampa Bay Lightning have lost five out of their last seven games played, their worst seven-game stretch of the season. On Sunday, the Lightning had to turn to goaltender Christopher Gibson after normal backup Curtis McElhinney picked up an injury in Saturday’s game. This was Gibson’s first NHL game since the 2018-2019 season when he played two games with the New York Islanders. Sunday’s game was just his 15th career game. Gibson was signed by Tampa this year after five seasons with the Islanders.

Since March 25, Tampa has struggled offensively with just 15 goals in its last seven games. They have not scored more than three goals since they played the Panthers on March 21. A big part of this has been Steven Stamkos, who hasn’t scored in this seven-game stretch. He has just five points in his last 10 games, which is down from his .89 season long points per game, which is second best on the team. Victor Hedman, who leads the team in scoring per game has also only registered a goal and two assists in these seven games. The Lighting are notoriously deep, but have not been able to overcome their top players’ slump.

4. Nashville Predators: .537 P% (21-18-1) 43 Points

Since March 15, the Predators have been getting incredible goaltending from Juuse Saros. The Predators’ 1.58 goals against per game leads the league, beating the second place Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2.11 goals against per game. The Preds have also been one of the top penalty killing teams with a 91.2% success rate. Their defense and goaltending have been so good they have won 10 games without averaging over three goals a game.

With a shootout win against the Detroit Red Wings last night, the Preds were able to maintain their two-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks for the final playoff position in the Central Division. The Predators have been the best team in the division since the mid-point of March. They have had a 10-2-0 record in their last 12 games to get themselves right back into the playoff race. Before this run, they had a 5% chance to make the playoffs and have now rocketed up to a 42% chance, according to Money Puck. which is tied with the Dallas Stars for the final place in the Central.

5. Chicago Blackhawks: .500 P% (17-17-5) 39 Points

March was a huge month for the Blackhawks, as they were riding high in the fourth position in the Central but had 10 games against the Panthers, Lightning, and Canes. If they were able to tread water they would certainly differentiate themselves from the lower half of the division. Well, you can probably guess by where they stand how it went. They had a 6-9-1 record since the start of March, which has seen them plummet in the standings down to sixth in the division, which is closer to where we thought they would be at the start of the season.

The Blackhawks re-acquired forward Vinnie Hinostroza from the Arizona Coyotes for Brad Morrison. Hinostroza’s re-acquisition also prompted the Blackhawks to waive former Hurricane Lucas Wallmark. Wallmark has just three assists in 16 games played for Chicago this year and was never able to fully crack the full-time lineup. He is now part of the taxi squad.

6. Dallas Stars: .500 P% (13-13-10) 36 Points

The Stars still have to be considered the team that has faced the most challenges this season. They never know who is going to be in their lineup due to injuries. Their best forward this season has been Roope Hintz, but noticeably he was only able to play one game in the most recent stint against the Hurricanes. He has been consistently listed as day-to-day with an injury and he doesn’t often play consecutive games. It’s unfortunate for a team that was a finalist last season that they just haven’t been able to stay healthy or get in rhythm with all of their issues to see what that roster would have bene capable of this year.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets: .463 P% (15-18-8) 38 Points

When the Blue Jackets traded for Patrick, Laine John Tortorella took an all but too common stance of trying to turn the winger into a 200-foot player. This screams of the Dale Hunter and Alex Ovechkin experience which saw Ovechkin demoted to the fourth line because he wasn’t responsible enough on defense. At a certain point, you have to play to your players’ strengths and instead of doing that they have highlighted all of Laine’s weaknesses without allowing him to be successful where it counts, in the offensive zone with an incredible release.

This has been a big reason why the Blue Jackets have struggled after the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade. They have not gotten the most out of the assets they have traded for and it has looked like there has been a huge disconnect between the GM and the head coach. After losing against the Panthers by a combined score of 8-2 in two games, the team now looks to be dead in the water and playing without any inspiration.

8. Detroit Red Wings: .390 P% (13-22-6) 32 Points

Now the NHL has been very vocal about preventing tanking, but the Red Wings are playing their way out of a guaranteed top-five pick. With a .390 points percentage, they now rank 28th in the league and with the Seattle Kraken also getting the same odds as the 29th place team, the Red Wings could end up on the outside looking in with the draft lottery. This is even after the League changed the rules because of the amount of times the Wings dropped in the lottery. The only benefit that they have is that every team under them in the standings has at least one game in hand over the Wings.