Scott Burnside and Craig Custance predict who will win the Central Division and which team will miss the cut in the East.
Burnside: Good morning, my friend. Have you got your skates packed for your trip to Ottawa and the Rideau Canal for the All-Star festival? Tuesday marked the unofficial start of the All-Star break, as only Detroit and Montreal play Tuesday night and there was no shortage of "statement" games for teams looking to enjoy the time off with a big win.
For me, there was no bigger "statement" than the one made by the Nashville Predators, who beat the Chicago Blackhawks for the second straight time to leap over the Hawks in the ultra-compressed Central Division standings. The Preds, who beat Columbus at home the night before and had to travel to the United Center for Tuesday’s crucial tilt, have now won 12-of-14 and dropped Chicago into fourth place in the division. The Hawks were without their injured captain Jonathan Toews, who will miss All-Star weekend, and the Blackhawks must now look forward to a nine-game road trip after the break. Yikes.
As for the Preds, is there any better selling point to defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber than to pile up wins like they have? Or do you think success, like the Predators are enjoying now, has any bearing on whether Suter is more or less likely to sign a contract extension before the Feb. 27 trade deadline?
Custance: I have to say I am looking forward to the trip to Ottawa, even if the weather won't permit any skating on the canal. But you can't help but wonder if the Predators would prefer to keep playing rather than take a break. That win against the Blackhawks was Nashville's fourth consecutive win, and I do believe that it becomes the best selling point for David Poile during contract negotiations with Suter. I think Suter and Weber are sincere when they say they want to stay in Nashville, but both desperately want to win. If that group continues to prove that it can remain competitive in the league's best division, it only helps the cause in negotiations. I know I've mentioned it a couple times in this space, but I still think Nashville lands some offense to make the decision even harder for Suter to turn down. Because of their youth, this is a Predators team that's only going to get better as the young players gain experience, so for them to already be keeping pace with Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis is impressive. You ready to declare a winner in the Central yet?
Burnside: Can I wait until after Tuesday’s game? The Blues hit the break with a shootout loss to Pittsburgh Tuesday night and a hard loss to Detroit Monday, but they should get Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald back after the break,. That is like adding two top-six forwards, which should help give the offense, an ongoing issue for the Blues, a boost. The Blues are a great story, and winning the Central after Doug Armstrong’s gutsy firing of Davis Payne just 13 games in would be pretty amazing. I remember talking to Armstrong not long ago about how his team is going to have to learn to play in this environment -- something the Wings, Hawks and even the Preds are accustomed to doing. In the end, it’s hard not to see Detroit’s experience giving it the final say in the Central, even if it is by a matter of points.
But the better question is how do the top four line up when the dust settles in mid-April. Here’s my guess: Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville. You?
Custance: I'm going to stick with my Blackhawks pick from before the season. It doesn't sound like Toews' injury is too serious, and Stan Bowman has the resources and cap room to add some help at the deadline. Plus, the Red Wings have to lose at home at some point, right?
I tried to pry information out of Armstrong Tuesday as to what he plans to do before the deadline, and he made the same point you did. The Blues are about to get some help with the return of Steen and McDonald.
"If we can get those players in the lineup, then we'll have an understanding of our team offense," Armstrong said. "If you add two players that are 60-80-point players on a regular-season basis, that increases the scoring of all players."
It's going to be a heck of a race. And how about the race in the East for the final playoff spot? Undermanned Washington came up huge against the Boston Bruins with a 5-3 win, and the Leafs showed a ton of fortitude in coming back to beat the Islanders. Strong statements by both franchises.
Burnside: With the Jets losing yet again, this time to the Rangers, there’s been some separation at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. The Lightning won their fourth in a row but are still nine points out. Sorry, that’s too much, given how porous they’ve been defensively and in goal.
So in my mind, that leaves Toronto, Florida, New Jersey and Ottawa to battle for the final three spots. I just think the Caps will gradually assert themselves and maintain the Southeast Division lead that they now own, even if it is on winning percentage at the break.
The Senators have lost three in a row as the offense has gone dry and they have played four more games than Florida and New Jersey and three more than the Leafs, so their five-point bulge in the standings is a bit misleading.
The Leafs, as you noted, came up with two big wins over an Islanders team that was playing very well, while the Panthers lost yet again in the shootout -– they are 3-6 in the skills event -– and you wonder if those lost points might come back to haunt them in early April.
The Devils looked for a bit like they might challenge Philadelphia and Pittsburgh but have slid back and, even though I don’t think they’ll trade Zach Parise, their perilous position at the end of the bracket won’t do much to dissuade rumors about whether Parise will be on the block come Feb. 27.
I still think the Leafs finish outside the bubble and the top eight remain as they are now. Anyone else you see making a run in the East post-All-Star break?
Custance: I disagree. I think Toronto gets in. I like what I saw from the Leafs in beating an Islanders team that was playing pretty well going into those two games. A fluky Islanders goal sent that game into overtime, and I loved Toronto's response, as did their general manager.
"Right from the start of overtime, it was 'We need to get that point back. We can still get it back. The game is not over,'" Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said when we chatted Wednesday morning. "It was two har-fought games. It's not just two games, it's two games against a team playing well and a team that we have to put some distance between."
If Jonas Gustavsson continues to play as well as he has, Toronto is capable of making that run. A finish similar to last season for the Maple Leafs would make the playoffs a lock.
Well, Scott, time to get packing. See you in Ottawa!