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Stuck in the Central with You: Possibilities for Playoff Matchups

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right... With the Central the way it is this year, anything can happen.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Central Division has been bizarre this year, with what’s projected to be the tightest point distribution of any of the divisions.

The Atlantic has the league’s first-place Tampa Bay Lightning, with 122 points through 78 games; it also has the last-place Ottawa Senators, who have only managed 62 points through the same number of games. It’s entirely possible that the Lightning will finish with at least twice as many standings points as the Senators. Other divisions aren’t anywhere near as silly—the Metro right now has the Capitals with 102 in and the Devils with 68, both in 79 games, and the Pacific has the Flames with 103 and the Kings with 67, both in 78 games.

Meanwhile, the closest thing the Central has to an unsuccessful team right now is the Blackhawks (79 points in 78 games), who have yet to be mathematically eliminated. The closest thing it has to a successful team right now is the Jets (94 points in 78 games), who despite their division-best record would be fighting for a wild-card spot in the East.

Three teams from the Central have clinched so far, and two more are still in the playoff race—as are the Arizona Coyotes, who will need a lot of luck to make even the second wildcard and even more luck to make the first. The span of points in question is extremely narrow:

The Standings

Team GP Points Record ROW Games Left Max Points
Team GP Points Record ROW Games Left Max Points
Winnipeg Jets - x 78 94 45-29-4 43 4 102
Nashville Predators - x 79 94 44-29-6 40 3 100
St. Louis Blues - x 78 92 42-28-8 41 4 100
Dallas Stars 79 89 41-31-7 40 3 95
Colorado Avalanche 78 85 36-29-13 34 4 93
Arizona Coyotes 79 84 38-33-8 34 3 90
“After you.” “No, after you.” “No, please, I insist!”

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the Predators or Jets will take the Central, but it’s important to note that the Blues have a game in hand on the Preds and could easily take the division title themselves, especially if the Jets lose tonight. Or Jordan Binnington might prove mortal, as Andrew Hammond did for the Senators in 2015, and they might stumble at the finish line and land in the second wildcard spot.

The Colorado Avalanche (whose place in the standings has suffered from a 0-12 record in 3v3 overtime) can’t finish any higher than third in the Central, and the Coyotes can’t finish in a divisional spot at all, since the Vegas Golden Knights are currently third in the Pacific with 91 points. For the other teams, almost anything can happen.

In other words, it’s mathematically possible for the Predators to finish anywhere from first in the Central and facing the first wildcard to being the first wildcard.

Possible isn’t the same as probable, of course, and people with game-prediction models are predicting games. The model that Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz uses has the Preds’ potential first-round opponents as follows:

I don’t think I like the looks of this...
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Basically, the Preds have about a three-in-five chance to play the Blues, or a one-in-four chance to play the Stars, with a few other slim possibilities.

Moneypuck.com doesn’t have the same kind of pretty graph with every possibility, but their model indicates the Predators have about a 23.6% chance to win the division, a 1.5% chance to be the first wildcard, and the remaining three-in-four (74.9%, whatever, we’re all friends here) chance to be part of the first-round divisional matchup as either the second or third in the Central, where they’ll probably face St. Louis.

Complicating this further is the fact that the Preds have struggled against most of their potential first-round opponents, especially the Jets and Blues, in the season series this year. They went 1-3 against the Jets, 1-4 against the Blues, 2-2 against the Avalanche, and 3-2 against the Stars with only one win in regulation. (They also went 1-2 against the Coyotes, but you don’t need to look at this season to be alarmed at the thought of a Preds-Coyotes playoff series.)

As has been pointed out, the same was true as the Preds went into the 2017 series against the Blackhawks (1-4 against them that regular season), so maybe you feel like the best way for the Preds to handle their first-round matchup is to get the all losing out of the way during the regular season. Or maybe you feel differently about the 2019 team than the 2017 one.

Poll

Who would you like to see the Preds play in the first round?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Arizona Coyotes
    (50 votes)
  • 13%
    Colorado Avalanche
    (40 votes)
  • 50%
    Dallas Stars
    (153 votes)
  • 13%
    St. Louis Blues
    (42 votes)
  • 6%
    Winnipeg Jets
    (21 votes)
306 votes total Vote Now

Scoreboard-Watching Opportunities

The most fun thing about the scoreboard watching is the four-point games here in the home stretch. It’ll be a particularly busy week for the Jets and Avalanche, who each have two. The Stars join the Preds as the only two teams in this bracket unable to help spike an opponent’s chances while helping their own at least once.

Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and the Blues has some particularly dramatic seeding potential. The Avalanche cannot clinch with a win, but Coyotes fans are going to be rooting hard for them to lose in regulation anyway. Meanwhile, a Blues loss makes it that much harder for them to catch Winnipeg (or Nashville) for the division. It’s airing on NBCSN, so if you haven’t cut the cable you can check it out whether or not you subscribe to NHL TV. The puck drops shortly after 7 PM Central.

Winnipeg Jets

  1. @ Chicago Blackhawks, tonight at 7:30 CT
  2. @ Minnesota Wild, tomorrow at 7:00 CT
  3. @ Colorado Avalanche, Thursday at 8:00 CT
  4. @ Arizona Coyotes, Saturday at 9:00 CT

St. Louis Blues

  1. vs Colorado Avalanche, tonight at 7:00 CT
  2. @ Chicago Blackhawks, Wednesday at 7:00 CT
  3. vs Philadelphia Flyers, Thursday at 7:00 CT
  4. vs Vancouver Canucks, Saturday at 3:00 CT

Dallas Stars

  1. vs Philadelphia Flyers, tomorrow at 7:30 CT
  2. @ Chicago Blackhawks, Friday at 7:30 CT
  3. vs Minnesota Wild, Saturday at 7:00 CT

Colorado Avalanche

  1. @ St. Louis Blues, tonight at 7:00 CT
  2. vs Edmonton Oilers, tomorrow at 8:00 CT
  3. vs Winnipeg Jets, Thursday at 8:00 CT
  4. @ San Jose Sharks, Saturday at 9:30 CT

Arizona Coyotes

  1. vs Los Angeles Kings, tomorrow at 9:00 CT
  2. @ Vegas Golden Knights, Thursday at 9:00 CT
  3. vs Winnipeg Jets, Saturday at 9:00 CT