The Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues are battling for NHL and Central Division supremacy. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
At the break, four of the top seven teams in the NHL are in the Central Division, and even without realignment, it looks like we're shaping up for some bloody intra-division playoff battles.
The NHL enters its All-Star Break with just seven teams carrying 64 or more standings points. Four of them are in the Central Division, and while the number of games played varies across the league, equalizing that doesn't change things much. Four of the NHL's top eight teams by points percentage are in the Central.
By finishing the pre-break schedule beating up the rest of the league and each other -- Chicago lost to Nashville Tuesday night -- the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks have turned the Central Division's volume up to eleven. Sure, the Columbus Blue Jackets drag things down a little, but this really isn't rocket science.
Points aren't the only impressive metric for the Central's top-four, however.
By 5-on-5 goal differential, Detroit (1.59) and St. Louis (1.47) rank 2nd and 3rd overall, with Chicago ranked 9th and Nashville slacking in 17th. By "Fenwick close" -- a measure of even-strength puck possession with the score tied, when all motives are created equal -- the Red Wings (56.81), Blues (55.81) and Blackhawks (52.73) are 1st, 2nd and 4th overall in the league, with only the Pittsburgh Penguins interrupting the Central run. (In this category, the Predators are 29th at 45.20, an outlier that demands further investigation.
St. Louis' win record is inflated by only one coin-flip shootout win. Nashville has three, Chicago four and Detroit five. These teams win a lot, and they come by it honestly.
CENTRAL vs. ATLANTIC
The Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division also makes a claim for supremacy, and it features three teams over 60 points as well. Interestingly, each division has an identical record against the other: Thanks to the NHL's overtime and shootout bonus point system, the Central and Atlantic are each collectively 8-5-3 against teams from the other division.
More broadly, the Atlantic is 35-16-12 against the Western Conference, while the Central is 32-17-8 against the Eastern Conference.
Both divisions have been labeled "toughest" in the NHL more often than not in recent years, and of course together they feature three of the last four Stanley Cup winners, and six of the last eight Cup finalists. 2011 was the first time in four years the Final did not pit a Central team versus an Atlantic team.
BLOODY PLAYOFF BATTLES LOOM
And while we might not expect that Final matchup to continue, we can expect more vicious playoff battles. The NHL's proposed realignment would've made this particularly bloody, with teams playing the first two rounds of the playoffs within only slightly-altered divisions.
But even without realignment and a new playoff setup, if the standings remain as they are at the All-Star Break, then one intra-Central first-round playoff matchup would be assured, another collision likely to follow. The NHL allows division winners the top three seeds in each conference, so the Central's second giant would be seeded fourth, set to face the third giant who would have the fifth seed.
If they take up four playoff positions that means only two entrants for the West's other two divisions -- and several playoff collisions on the schedule. The Central's runners-up (by today's standings, St. Louis and Nashville) could knock each other around for the first round of the playoffs, only to face the division champ in the next round. Or, if the lowest Central seed won its first round, it would face the division champ in the second round, and the survivor quite possibly facing the remaining Central contender in the Conference Finals.
Imagine: Round after round of intra-divisional playoffs. Even without realignment.