The Chicago Blackhawks sit two points behind the St. Louis Blues with the latter having played two less games, and the Colorado Avalanche are nipping on Chicago’s heels with just one less point to go with a game in hand. Needless to say, the race for the Central Division crown will almost surely come down to the wire.
Of course, it isn’t necessarily first place that’s the chief concern anymore for the Blackhawks. With the new playoff setup, it is at this point a near certainty that two of Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado will play each other in the first round of the postseason (the second vs. third matchup).
Finishing ahead of at least one of the Blues and Avalanche, then, needs to be a priority for the Blackhawks. Both teams have given the defending champions significant trouble in their games in 2013-14, and a playoff series with either will undoubtedly be hotly contested.
Thus, we now see the importance of Chicago nabbing at least the second seed and ensuring themselves home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. This is not last season’s Blackhawks, who were almost laughably ahead of the pack in nearly every measurable facet of the game; this year’s Western Conference has four or five truly elite teams, two times as many as there were in 2012-13.
Make no mistake, however. Chicago remains the team to beat, and remain the Stanley Cup champions until somebody dethrones them. Home ice will only help matters in that respect.