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Central Division Weekly Roundup: It’s the Final Countdown

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Heading into the final week of the season the Carolina Hurricanes have a 95% chance to win the division.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1. Carolina Hurricanes: .745 P% (36-10-7) 79 Points

We know that Jordan Martinook and Cedric Paquette will return to the fourth line when healthy but the bigger question is what to do with Brock McGinn. Rod Brind’Amour has had the tendency to overplay McGinn in the lineup, but which of the top three lines gets broken up for his return? The SAT line has shown how electric a line it can be with three skill players. The SAT line has been incredible since Teuvo Teravainen returned to the lineup.

Since Teravainen’s return in late April, Sebastian Aho has scored the second-most points in the league, behind only Connor McDavid. The line has combined for nine goals in five games, all three scoring over a point per game pace. On Monday, the Canes also got forward Jesper Fast back to the third line, meaning the top nine is likely back to full strength. The third line has been the most improved line with Warren Foegele absolutely buzzing with three points in the last five games. He has looked to be re-energized playing with a ton of speed and has been positively impacting the game like he was two years ago.

The only line you could look at changing up would be Martin Necas, Vincent Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter. The line has been in a little bit of a slump compared to their normal production, but the combination of speed and skill gives them the chance to take over any game. At what point do you break up one of these lines to add McGinn, who outside of three games has been bad offensively and often misses when sprung on breakaways or on odd-man rushes, something that the Aho and Teravainen duo doesn’t do.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning: .702 P% (35-14-3) 73 Points

The Canes have a magic number of three to win the division. This means the Canes need to only either gain three points or have the Lightning lose three points for the Canes to take first. The Canes could officially clinch the division on Thursday if the Lighting lose their game to the Stars in regulation or overtime and the Canes pick up points against the Chicago Blackhawks.

While Tampa may not win the division, they will still be the scariest team in the league. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are both full participants in practice. Stamkos could return in the regular season and this should all but guarantee that Kucherov is ready for the playoffs. If the Lightning and Kucherov are able to get back in the swing of things, it will make a very tough second-round matchup if the Canes are able to make it past the Predators. A full-strength Lightning team is not the team you want to see until as late as possible in the playoffs.

3. Florida Panthers: .694 P% (35-14-5) 75 Points

The top of the Central Division is so insane, the Panthers ‘8-2-0 record in their last 10 and four-game winning streak might not be enough to hold onto second place. Home ice advantage in the potential Florida series will come down to the last two games of the season. Even if the Lightning win their next two games, they will hold a two-point lead for second place. If the Panthers picked up three points in those last two games, they would still hold onto the second spot. The only thing that could change is if the Canes lose the top spot in the division to Tampa, the Panthers cannot win the division after the Canes’ win last night.

The Panthers do get some time to heal up with five days off until they kick off their final series against the Lightning. Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett and Chris Driedger are all listed as day-to-day. Between this five-day span and a possible break in the league, until the Vancouver Canucks finish up their season, the Panthers could receive a huge boost of a full lineup by the time the playoffs do start. Verhaeghe has been reported to be “real close” to a return. While he is not an everyday name, he has been playing on the top line and has 35 points in 42 games.

4. Nashville Predators: .566 P% (29-22-2) 60 Points

After a 4-3 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Nashville Predators now sit around 85% to make the playoffs. This also sets up an interesting scenario at the end of the season where the Canes and Preds could play their final two regular-season games before starting a playoff series. This means they could see each other nine times in a row if the playoffs go the full distance. The exact same thing could happen with the Panthers and Lightning which, would give these Central Division matchups some extra hatred.

The next time that the Canes take on the Preds, it will be the first time they have seen Filip Forsberg since March 11. The Preds were without the goal-scoring winger from the end of March until May. Forsberg, much like Teravainen, didn’t waste any time making an impact. On Monday he recorded a goal and an assist. Despite missing 14 games, he still ranks second on the team in points (26) and goals (12). He also plays on the top power-play unit which recorded a goal on Monday. The Predators' offense looks a lot more menacing with him back in the lineup.

5. Dallas Stars: .538 P% (21-17-14) 56 Points

The Dallas Stars finally got Tyler Seguin back in the lineup on Monday. Seguin had not played since the Stanley Cup Final last season. It has been great seeing him come back onto the ice and play at a high level. In his return, he played 22 shifts for 17:09 of ice time and recorded a goal. The Stars were hoping his return could power them to an all-important win against the Florida Panthers to keep their playoff hopes alive, but it wasn’t in the cards. Now the Stars have just a 7% chance to make the playoffs according to MoneyPuck.com, which would require them to go 4-0-0 with the Predators having to lose at least two of their last three games.

Not looking likely. Looking at the human side of the story, it is just good to see Seguin back on the ice again. His battle to return from this injury and hip surgery was a long one that had to see him completely rehab and build up his quad muscle from his injured leg. These aren’t injuries that are 100% as soon as a player returns. He will need to learn to skate and play with confidence and having a few games back before the offseason will go a long way to accomplishing this.

6. Chicago Blackhawks: .472 P% (22-25-6) 50 Points

After losing to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, the Blackhawks were officially eliminated from playoff contention. The Blackhawks could still look at this season as relatively successful. They were not expected to be in the playoff race at all and were not eliminated there were five games left in the season. This will give their younger players confidence that they were able to do this without their captain. The issue with this type of season is the no playoffs and no top-10 pick scenario that comes up for these teams. Can they really re-tool/rebuild on the fly if they aren’t getting top pieces in the draft, that’s always the conundrum.

The New York Rangers made the decision a few years ago that it was better to sell off assets, be bad in the short term to get better quicker. While they aren’t done it certainly seems like a good decision now that they are fifth in the East while still developing their young upcoming players in the NHL. They are going to be stuck in this grey area until they make a big decision on their future and their assets. Do they look to acquire a Jack Eichel or trade out one of their stars for a haul? By doing nothing they continue to be in the dreaded middle of the standings.

7. Detroit Red Wings: .417 P% (28-27-9) 45 Points

The Red Wings pulled off the biggest trade at the deadline, but they also look to have made the best trade at the deadline. Every week it seems like Jakub Vrana is turning heads in a different way. Last week it was scoring four goals in one game, this week it was a highlight reel shootout goal to beat the Lightning in a shootout. Since April 12, he has led the team in points with seven. Then you realize that they also got a first-round pick and a second-round pick to take the best player in the trade. This is the kind of deal that can really accelerate a rebuild.

Detroit will have five full days off between its most recent game against the Lightning and its upcoming game against the Blue Jackets on Friday. The Red Wings have just two games left in the season to determine the last two positions in the division. The two bottom teams are locked to determine the fifth-best odds in the draft lottery, but there is a chance that the Devils could mathematically pass the two teams. But with only one game against a team not in playoff contention it looks like they will hang on to fourth.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets: .415 P% (16-25-12) 44 Points

The Columbus Blue Jackets are on the verge of setting a sad franchise record for the shortest winning streak in a season. If they do not win their last three games, they will finish with their longest “streak” lasting just two games this season. They have had three-game streaks four times in their history, the latest coming in the 2015-2016 season. The only good news for them is that they currently sit at 28th in the league which sees them getting the fifth-best odds in the upcoming draft lottery.

Trying to gauge what the Blue Jackets will look like next year back in the Metropolitan Division is tough. The team only has 10 players who dressed with them in the 2019 playoffs and next year they will have a new coach. The other feeling is that Seth Jones and Zach Werenski have only one more season left on their contracts and Patrik Laine is a pending RFA. The Blue Jackets have had no success with re-signing star-caliber players. Will that change or are they going to have to trade more players on expiring contracts? Hopefully, they will have success in building a core that will want to finally stay in Columbus, if not they may be in for a long rebuild.