There was a time when the Central Division was perhaps one of the weakest in the NHL. Detroit and St Louis were basically the only playoff teams coming out of the division, and it looked more and more like St Louis was falling off the rocker. It used to be the Red Wings ran away with their division every year, but with the rise in parity each year, this isn’t the case anymore. True the Wings have still won the division 5 out of 6 seasons since the lockout, but there has been some more fight put up by their rivals. Nashville has continued to be good without having any real star power on the team, Columbus is at least threatening for the playoffs nowadays, St Louis has a great young core that looks poised to get even better, and Chicago has gone through a lightning fast catharsis over the last few seasons.
It’s all of those things I just mentioned that makes this most recent division crown just a little better than the other ones. Competition is always more exciting than a blowout, and that made this years race all the more fun to watch. Coming in to this year, Detroit and Chicago were in all honesty the two teams that were going to have a shot at clinching this year. Red Wings fans everywhere are breathing a little easier now, knowing their team has secured a top seed in the playoffs yet again.
Down to the game that got them here though. Last night, Detroit took on Minnesota in a battle between arguably the two best hockey states in America. While Minnesota has been eliminated from playoff contention, the game was still important to Detroit battling for second place in the conference with San Jose. Detroit got on the board early when Darren Helm pulled a curl and drag move out front and beat Theodore for his 12th goal of the year (new career high). Nick Lidstrom scored a powerplay goal in the last minute of the period to give Detroit a nice 2-0 cushion heading into intermission.
Minnesota managed to jam one in at the beginning of the second to pull themselves back in the game, but Tomas Holmstrom scored 8 minutes later with a rare feat of stick-handling to restore Detroit’s 2 goal lead. Johan Franzen broke out of his scoring slump by pushing one past Theodore about 6 minutes into the third to make it 4-1 Red Wings, before Carson McMillan scored the first goal of his career to make it 4-2. That’s how the score would stay, as Detroit earned its second straight victory and 46th of the season.
The Red Wings remain in a heated battle with San Jose to determine who will take the second seed come playoff time. As of right now Detroit sits in second place, 1 point ahead of the Sharks, and the Sharks have one game in hand. As of this posting, the Sharks are winning that game in hand 6-1, so it appears they will overtake second place until wednesday night when both teams will play their 80th game of the year. If Detroit wins their three remaining games, and San Jose loses just once, the WIngs will take second.
Key notes: Pavel Datsyuk returned to the lineup after missing seven games with a lower body injury. He added an assist to Tomas Holmstrom’s goal, giving him 58 points in 53 games this season. Niklas Kronwall was scratched again, though his absence does not appear to be anything serious. Jakub Kindl and Ruslan Salei will be battling to see who will get the last spot on defense come playoff time. Salei is a reliable and hard-nosed veteran, but Kindl has been rock solid lately and carries more speed.