With two weeks to go before the playoffs, all five Central teams are in the Western Conference's top eight. I'm not sure all five will ultimately end up in the postseason -- it's been 28 years since a division (the old Adams) put all its entries in the tournament -- but for the moment let's consider the transformation that is taking place.
Where once the Detroit Red Wings were division's the lone representative, the other four teams are now viable. Why? Because they had to get better to compete with the perennially strong Wings.
Not that any of the other four built themselves exclusively like the Wings, but in their own way, the Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues got stronger. I remember Preds coach Barry Trotz acknowledging as much years ago. A reporter offered an out by saying, "If you were in the Eastern Conference, your point total would put you in the playoffs." Trotz immediately debunked the notion and finished with, "...our reality is that we have to face Detroit eight times (there are six divisional meetings now), so it's going to force us to get stronger faster. We have to."
The Predators have built through consistency -- management and coaching have remained intact since the franchise's inception in 1998 -- and continue as an honest team that poses problems on a nightly basis. They still look up at the Red Wings in the standings and in overall explosiveness, but their must-have 4-3 win in Detroit on Sunday shows that the Predators have long since graduated from the "we hope to give them a game" category. That victory was the Preds' third straight and it has them in seventh place, although they remain just two points clear of ninth-place Anaheim. The freakish loss of winger Martin Erat to a broken leg sustained when he was hit by a Shea Webber slapshot in the Detroit game will make their road tougher.
The Blackhawks have had a wonderful resurgence. They have combined top draft picks -- Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane -- with big-name free agents -- Brian Campbell and Nik Khabibulin. Unlike Nashville, whose playoff participation probably won't be settled until the final weekend, Chicago is firmly bound for its first postseason appearance in seven years. But the Blackhawks are set up well for the long haul with their blend of speed, skill and size. They still struggle within the Central -- where they are just 4-7-6 -- but they've dominated the rest of the West, going 27-11-2 -- better than even the Red Wings' 25-8-6 mark.
The Blue Jackets' journey of measuring up in the division is similar to that of the Predators in that they are an expansion team trying to get to the point where they can compete regularly on Detroit's turf. With two weeks remaining, the Jackets are on the precipice of their first playoff berth. If they do get in, they may reflect back on their three wins over the Red Wings in the second half of the season -- including an 8-2 drubbing in Detroit on March 7 -- as a telltale sign of relative success.
Which brings us to the St. Louis Blues. This franchise once chased the Red Wings to distraction while trying to supplant them as the team to beat in not only the division, but the conference. They never did catch Detroit and all their dealing at the deadline left the Blues bereft of young talent and on a rebuilding track after 25 consecutive playoff appearances through 2004. The process has accelerated with the Blues winning five straight games and making a surge towards the postseason ahead of anyone's schedule. This team is loaded with fine young players like TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Perron and David Backes, but most thought they were at least a season away from being in this position. Yet, here they are.
After a weekend sweep of a home-and-home set with the Jackets, the Blues hold down the eighth and final playoff spot. They've done it in large part by being good within the division, going 12-5-4, second only to the Red Wings' 14-5-1. Against the standard- bearer though, the upstart Blues have lost all five meetings, going 0-4-1. They travel to Detroit for their final meeting of the season on Thursday, which seems oh so appropriate. To measure up in the Central Division, all things go through Detroit. It is a test the Blues are looking to pass for advanced postseason placement.