The end of 2010 is almost upon us, and the NHL season is approaching its halfway point. Standings are beginning to loosen up and division contenders are making themselves known. Before we preview the next week of the Colorado Avalanche's schedule, it's time to examine the Central Division.
Through the first two months, this race was a bottleneck with all five teams in playoff position. Where do they stand right now?
The Detroit Red Wings are again the class of the Western Conference and the Central Division, though the holiday season has been rough on the boys from Motown. Detroit has a 5-5-2 record in their past 12 games, and just lost two of their top four forwards to injury. Pavel Datsyuk broke his wrist and will miss four weeks, and Dan Cleary broke his ankle and will be out of the lineup for an indeterminate amount of time. Even without these two players, they are still loaded with offensive talent and look to remain at the top of their division.
The reigning champion Chicago Blackhawks are sitting in second place currently, though with two more games played than the rest of their division. Offensively, they are the deepest team in the league, with nine players scoring 20+ points this season. Defensively, they have struggled and their goaltending has been very average. But the Blackhawks have won four games in a row against playoff caliber opponents, and Marian Hossa is returning from injury. With Detroit's recent struggles, this is the time for the Blackhawks to make their move within the division.
The St. Louis Blues have had a rollercoaster of a season. After starting out the year at a blistering pace -- only losing in regulation once in their first 12 games -- they had the expected struggles. Without an elite offensive player and depending heavily on a young defense and goaltender Jaroslav Halak, the Blues have started showing cracks recently. But just when they drifted away from the playoff race, they have salvaged their season with three straight dominating victories. The Blues may not make the playoffs this season, but they are sure making the division interesting.
The Nashville Predators are the NHL's favorite underdogs. Despite playing in a stacked division, without superior talent or a stable ownership, they keep plugging along and sneaking into the playoffs every season. This year is no exception. The Predators are holding tight in the Central Division without any scoring depth (their leading scorer is the 5'8" Steven Sullivan, with 20 points) or a true #1 goaltender. They have three separate losing streaks of four or more games on the year, and yet they are still a playoff contender. Amazing, and very curious.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are another team that had playoff aspirations at the beginning of the season, but are finding their lack of offensive depth a problem too large for a young team to overcome. After going 14-6 in their first 20 games of the season, Columbus has hit a wall. They are 3-9-3 in their past 15 games and fading fast. It would take a miracle (or an extended run for 22 year old goalie Chris Mason) for the playoffs to return to Columbus this season, especially in the Western Conference.
So where does this division stand? The Detroit Red Wings are near-locks to win the division crown and a Top 3 seed this year, while the Blackhawks can probably make postseason plans as well. A third team is likely, as the similarly built Blues and Predators will have to fight the rest of the season for that last seed. The early season dream of five Central teams making the playoffs has failed to become a reality, but expect the Central to send three teams to the tournament.
Colorado Avalanche Schedule Preview
After losing two of three last week, and suffering an unexpected goal outage, Colorado looks to rebound this week against a slate full of familiar (and hated) foes.
Monday, December 27 Vs Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings make their first visit to Denver this season, and they are ailing. With top scorers Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary out, the Red Wings will have to depend on the stick of Henrik Zetterberg. The two teams have split their season series in Detroit so far this year and this is the first of two games at Pepsi Center. They face off again in less than two weeks for their season finale on January 10.
Thursday, December 30 at Edmonton Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers welcome Colorado for the final game of 2010. The Oilers beat Colorado at Rexall Place on Thanksgiving night for their only other meeting of the season. They have done an effective job holding up last place in the Western Conference, losing five of their last six, but they have plenty of young talent. Future star Taylor Hall is having a breakout year, as the 19 year old has 21 points so far into his rookie campaign.
Friday, December 31 at Calgary Flames
Colorado continues their Alberta Tour as they head south to face Calgary in the second game of a back-to-back. The Flames are stuck in mediocrity this year and have completely underachieved. Three of their top four scorers are on the wrong side of 30, and they aren't exactly developing any young talent to take their place. Jarome Iginla is having his traditional great season, but goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is not. They have split their two games against Colorado this season.
Sunday, January 2 Vs Vancouver Canucks
Again with Vancouver. The Canucks are trying to pull away with the Northwest Division crown, and Colorado desperately needs a victory against Vancouver to stall their advance. The three games they have played against each other this season have all gone Vancouver's way, with Craig Anderson being injured in two of these games. Colorado has lost six of eight games against the Canucks going back to last year. They've shown they can handle every team in the league except for Vancouver, so this game is crucial. And of course, the schedule-makers decide to place this game after a Canadian roadtrip and as the third game in four days for Colorado. Sometimes, life isn't fair.