- Craig Custance
It was the first game for the Colorado Avalanche following the Christmas break, and a small gathering of reporters in Chicago chatted with Colorado coach Patrick Roy about his team’s chances in the Central Division.
One of them was NHL.com’s Brian Hedger, who noted Roy’s usual honesty.
“We know that Chicago is going to be on top in our [division],” Roy said at the time. “We don’t think we’re going to battle with Chicago in the standings.”
One, his team must not have received that memo. And two, he probably assumed the St. Louis Blues would lose to a division opponent at some point in regulation this season.
On Sunday, the Blues beat the Wild 3-2 in overtime, improving their division record to 18-0-1 this season. It’s as ridiculous as it is impressive. The win moved Ken Hitchcock past Ron Wilson for seventh on the all-time win list with 649. It also opened up a four-point lead in the Central for the Blues, whose 94 points are the most in the NHL this season.
It’s an impressive total that starts with taking care of your division opponents.
“We have, for some reason, won a lot of game in the division in overtime or shootouts,” Hitchcock wrote in an email Sunday night when I tried to get an explanation for the success against a pretty stacked Central Division. “Games have been so close, it’s unreal. Even against the non-playoff teams.”
As the world learned during the Olympics, T.J. Oshie is a heck of a weapon to have at your disposal in the shootout. He converted again Sunday night to help the Blues improve to 8-3 in the shootout. Those are points that could end up being critical in a tight race atop the Central.
And make no mistake, it’s a race the three teams battling for the top desperately want to win. After beating Detroit on Friday night, Colorado’s Matt Duchene didn’t hide his team’s deep desire to win the Central and send the message that they are for real. Beating Chicago and St. Louis would definitely win over converts that still expect the Avalanche to backslide at some point before the playoffs arrive.
“We’re not going to,” Duchene said when we chatted after the game. “We work hard. We have skill and we have great coaching. It’s not going to happen.”
The motivation for Hitchcock is a little different. His Blues already have proved they can put together an impressive regular season. He wants to win the division for the advantage it gives the Blues later on in the spring.
“It’s not so much winning the division,” he wrote in the email exchange, “it’s getting home ice as much as possible.”
In between them sit the reigning champion Blackhawks, who have been average against the Central, at 9-9-3, but have done most of their damage while cleaning up against the Pacific, at 14-1-6.
All three have made it this far, which takes us to this week’s Next Question: Which Central contender should smart money pick to win the division?
First, let’s take a look at the remaining schedule for St. Louis, Chicago and Colorado and determine which has the toughest path.