Apr 7, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) is defended by Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber (6) during the third period at the United Center. The Blackhawks beat the Predators 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Behind Enemy Lines - Central Division Playoff Picture

The final games of the season are painting the last few touches on the 2013 NHL playoffs picture, and it’s not turning out like many of us predicted. Most of us could only hope that the Chicago Blackhawks would be in the position that they’re in with only 9 games remaining in the regular season. The Blackhawks have clinched a playoff spot for the fifth year in a row with 64 points and a record of 30-5-4. They are first in the Central Division, the Western Conference, and the league – the place that they’ve been all season long, although it has been close at times. The rest of their division rivals are making a last ditched effort to find a spot in the playoffs, whether it’s going for a higher seed or just scraping in to the 8th spot. Here’s how the rest of their season is shaping up.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues are serious about the playoffs and are showing it with a 5-game winning streak, going 5-1-0 in their last 6. A loss against the Los Angeles Kings was their only blemish. The Kings game out firing and the Blues could do nothing more than tie it up time and again. Suffering nearly twice as many shots as they were giving, the Blues lost the game 4-2. After a few days of rest and his first time back since being recalled from the AHL, goaltender Brian Elliott was called on to take Jaroslav Halak‘s place after the latter suffered an injury late in the first period against the Minnesota Wild. Elliott began his rebound with a nice 4-1 win away from home. Then in Chicago, the Blues gained momentum against the top team in the NHL when forward Adam Chracknall scored twice for no apparent reason, and the Blues won 4-3 in a shootout.

The Blues continued their winning streak against Central Division opponents while hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets. With only 19 shots on goal, the home team beat the visitors 3-1. Next in the Central Division streak, the Blues traveled to Detroit where Elliott may have solidified his comeback and earned back the confidence of his team with a 28 save shutout in a 1-0 win against the Red Wings. Then, for the second game in a row, Elliott shut out the opponents 1-0 with only 15 saves against the final Central Division foe, the Nashville Predators.

St. Louis is now in 2nd place in the Central Division and 6th in the Western Conference with 46 points and a record of 22-14-2. They have 10 games remaining to keep up the momentum and either gain home ice advantage for the playoffs or lose out completely. The Blues are only two points behind the Kings for 4th place and have played two fewer games.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets have gone 4-3-0 in their last 7 games. In the last half of their 4-game road trip, they took on the Oilers in Edmonton in a back and forth game that went until the final period. The Oilers took the late lead and added an empty netter to hand the Jackets a 6-4 loss. The Blue Jackets wondered what it would be like to come out on top in a game like that, so they tried it the next night in Calgary. Seven goals were scored in the second period alone, and this time Columbus won 6-4.

Hosting the Anaheim Ducks at home, Columbus pulled out an overtime win when Mark Letestu scored with a minute remaining and defeated the Ducks 2-1. Against a couple of Central Division opponents, the Blue Jackets took a split with a final score of 3-1 both times. First in Nashville against the Predators, the Jackets scored twice in the final period to win 3-1. Then in one period of action in St. Louis, the Blues took a 2-1 lead and nabbed an empty net goal with one second left in the third to win it 3-1. Back home against the Minnesota Wild, the Blue Jackets were shut out 3-0 in a game where both teams had 24 shots on goal. Hosting the San Jose Sharks next, the Jackets returned the favor another even-shots game at 30 apiece. This time, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky won it 4-0.

Columbus is 4th in the Central Division and 11th in the Western Conference with 41 points and a record of 17-16-7. They have 8 games remaining to play their way into the playoffs. They are just two points behind the Red Wings in 8th place and have played one more game.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings are in serious jeopardy of missing out on the playoffs for the first time in 21 seasons. At a time when points are running low and games are few, the Wings lost 4 of their last 6 and were shut out twice. First in San Jose, the Red Wings could not find a way around Antti Niemi and lost 2-0. Next on Easter Sunday and before a national audience, the Red Wings faced off against the Blackhawks and let in multiple goals each period. They managed to avoid being shut out by knocking the stick out of Corey Crawford‘s hand (but, whatever) and scoring with 33 seconds remaining, losing 7-1. The next day, the Wings hosted another historic rival in the Colorado Avalanche. With a 3 goal lead going into the third period, Detroit allowed 2 goals but managed to halt a complete comeback, winning 3-2.

Back on the road in Phoenix, the Red Wings could not recover from three goals against in the second period alone and lost the game against the Coyotes 4-2. In a rematch against the Avalanche the next night, the Wings once again gave up a lead but this time won it in overtime off of the stick of Pavel Datsyuk with 16 seconds remaining. Their final shutout experience came in a goalie dual where Jimmy Howard was beat out 1-0 by the reviving season of Brian Elliott and the St. Louis Blues.

Detroit has 41 points with a record of 19-15-5 and sits in 3rd place for the Central Division and are clinging to the 8th spot in the Western Conference with only 9 games remaining. They are dangerously close to losing the last playoff seed to the Coyotes with 42 points and the Stars with 41 points.

Nashville Predators

In their last 8 game run, the Predators have lost 7 going 1-5-2. The first loss came against the Phoenix Coyotes in a game that saw 11 goals, 9 of them in the first period alone which made for a pretty boring final two periods. Nashville came out on the bad side of a 7-4 final score. The Predators managed to earn a point in Colorado two nights later by tightening up defensively and shutting out the Avalanche but were also shut out themselves. Tyson Barrie scored for the home team only 50 seconds into overtime and Nashville lost 1-0. The Predators also managed to earn a point against the Blackhawks by coming back from a 2 goal deficit but losing in the 6th round of a shootout 3-2.

Building their way back to a win, Nashville hosted the Avalanche for a rematch and responded to the visitors’ first goal with three of their own and won 3-1. Then Nashville ran into problems against its Central Division opponents, losing to the Blue Jackets at home 3-1. It didn’t get any easier as they faced back to back games against the Blackhawks, losing 1-0 on home ice the first night and 5-3 in Chicago on night two. The St. Louis Blues traveled to Nashville and handed the Predators their third 1-0 shutout loss in 7 games.

Nashville is in a bad place with 38 points and only 7 games remaining. They are 5th in the Central Division and 13th in the Western Conference with a record of 15-18-8. Their hopes of reaching the playoffs are pretty far gone unless all 5 teams above them tank their remaining games and the Predators find a way to win every single one of theirs. They are 5 points behind the Red Wings in 8th place and have played 2 more games than Detroit.

Although these last few games don’t seem like much, they are enough to completely change the landscape of the Western Conference playoffs. With the way they’ve all been playing lately, there are 4 or 5 teams that have a chance at landing in the 8th seed – Minnesota, Detroit, Phoenix, Dallas, and Columbus.

If Chicago remains in first place, who would you like to see as their first round playoff opponent? An Original 6 farewell matchup against the Red Wings? A rematch against the Coyotes? Or rewarding the Blue Jackets for a hard-fought-for playoff appearance?

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