Central Division Weekly: Cale Makar makes best goal bid

Makar’s overtime winner has everyone’s heads spinning.

In 13 non-division contests involving Central Division teams this week, the winner has hailed from the Central Division in 11 of them. Standout performances came from the Arizona Coyotes’ Johan Larsson, Nashville Predators’ Juuse Saros, Colorado Avalanche’s very own Cale Makar and let’s not forget Jordan Kyrou’s four-point bomb for the St. Louis Blues during the Winter Classic. Plus, Kirill Kaprizov faces injury, as the Central Division arms race heats up.

Arizona Coyotes (7-23-3)

I’m not an owner of this year’s World, Almanac but there must have been a full moon over Gila River Arena on Thursday night. The Coyotes snapped a seven-game winless streak against division rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, that arguably felt like the most complete game they’ve played since beating the Anaheim Ducks in overtime back on Dec. 17, 2021.

That night’s howling hero came in the form of Swedish winger Johan Larsson, who scored thrice for the hat trick, guiding his team to a 6-4 victory. Larsson was recently activated from injured reserve (IR) in late December.

His handiwork looked a little like this:

It was a game of momentum, with both teams trading control for stretches of the game. The ‘Yotes were forced to hold the lead late when Larsson’s third goal, an empty-netter, finally came at 19:31 in the third period to avert a comeback and win the game by a two-goal margin. Travis Boyd also netted a goal and two assists, while the team went 2-for-5 on the power play. This came following a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday.

The Coyotes dropped their Saturday night game against Nashville, 4-2. Centerman Jay Beagle joined Arizona’s long list of IR this week and will be out long-term following surgery for a lower-body injury.

Chicago Blackhawks (12-18-5)

The curse that plagued the ‘Yotes for seven straight losses might be making its rounds in the Central Division right now. The Blackhawks lost six of their last six games following a Thursday night loss to Arizona. That’s bad juju — and don’t tell me hockey isn’t a superstitious sport.

They also dropped 5-1 against the Calgary Flames on Sunday and 4-3 in an overtime loss to Colorado on Tuesday. They Hawks somewhat redeemed themselves, narrowly squeaking one under the win column against goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s former team, the Pacific first place Vegas Golden Knights. The final tally was 2-1.

Chicago was poised to make a turnaround after going 1-7-2 to start the season, thanks to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s resurgence, going 8-4-0 in net and getting a 500th career win, but since the new year and despite Saturday night’s win, they haven’t found a way to put it together.

Although, Chicago Cubs fans may be pretty excited with these two gems from Thursday night’s loss, during what is usually off-season for baseball:

In personnel news, the future Hall of Fame goaltender, Fleury, has been on the trade rumor wire, as the Blackhawks’ once hopeful season becomes more dire. And the road won’t get easier as the division race gets tighter.

Erik Gustafsson, Brandon Hagel, Sam Lafferty and Kevin Lankinen are in COVID Protocol, with Gustafsson and Hagel testing positive just an hour before Thursday’s game.

Colorado Avalanche (21-8-2)

There are bad streaks and there are good streaks. The Avalanche are one of three hot Central Division teams on a four-game win streak, but they may be hottest following the latest 7-1 shellacking against the Jets on Thursday.

The Avalanche also notched wins against the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday (4-2) and against the Blackhawks on Tuesday (4-3, OT). The ‘goal of the year’ in question came that night in United Center. If you were already dozing off during No. 1 on SportsCenter that night, here it was:

The overtime winner is one of Makar’s 15 goals on the 2021-22 season. The defenseman may very well be in the conversation for Norris Trophy candidacy if he and the Avs continue to trend positively down the stretch.

Not to be overlooked were performances from captain Gabriel Landeskog (3 goals), superstar Nathan MacKinnon (1 goal, 4 assists), and goaltender Darcy Kuemper (34 saves) on Thursday — amongst others on point streaks, or contributing regularly.

The Avalanche are playing mile-high hockey following a 5-4 overtime win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, but have not been finding their pace early — Saturday night’s win was a fourth straight comeback this week. Makar had a two-point game while Mikko Rantanen added four assists.

Colorado was without defenseman Jack Johnson, who suffered a lower-body injury against the Blackhawks, and forward Valeri Nichushkin, who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

Dallas Stars (17-12-2)

It was Joe Pavelski who scored for the Dallas Stars, sliding it past Florida Panther’s Sergei Bobrovsky in the shootout on Thursday night. That was before Stars netminder Braden Holtby stopped both attempts on the other side of the ice, giving Dallas the 6-5 win. They didn’t even need Jason Robertson’s second shootout tally, but nonetheless, Texas hockey took care of business on their return from a 16-game layoff.

It was Joe meets Joe, Pavs and Jumbo Joe Thornton — the latter whose 1,700 games played milestone was spoiled by the Stars’ victory when two beloved ex-Sharks captains donned much different sweaters: one with a Cat, not a Shark; and one trimmed in “Victory Green,” not teal. It was still San Jose magic.

Even the Shark killer, back from COVID Protocol, flashed a few tricks.

With the most recent win, the Stars — who have been battling COVID-spurred game postponements and a fluctuating protocol list all season — find themselves with 36 points, four spots behind a Wild Card, which isn’t all as unsmiling as it seems. The team also has a few games in hand and a dyad of star players on positive trends: Pavelski (8 points in last five games) and Robertson (15 points in 10 games). The Stars finally have an empty COVID Protocol, to boot.

The Stars extended their streak on Saturday night, coming back against the trendy Penguins to win 3-2. Robertson contributed 3 assists and Pavelski netted a goal.

Minnesota Wild (21-10-2)

The Wild stopped the bleeding after losing five straight though the holidays, with a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins on Thursday, but lost an arm in star forward Kirill Kaprizov.

The ‘real deal’ 45-million-dollar man scored before heading to the locker room during the second period of the game, favoring his right arm. It’s still too early to say how serious the injury is or how long he will be out, but the sophomore winger didn’t ever look in the best position to receive the hit that put him out of the game.

The focal point then became Wild rookie Matt Boldy who was looking for — and found — his first NHL point in the form of a goal that became the eventual game winner.

Boldy, selected 12th overall in 2019, was one of two rookies making their NHL debut for Minnesota, the other being Marco Rossi (2020 draft, 9th overall). The recent call-ups are due to injuries and COVID Protocol that have sidetracked the Wild since early December. Among those who are out are Nick Bjugstad, Joel Eriksson Ek, Jared Spurgeon and Cam Talbot, with injuries; as well as Brandon Duhaime and Jordan Greenway in COVID Protocol.

The Wild pulled off a 3-2 shootout win on Saturday night against the Washington Capitals.

Nashville Predators (23-11-2)

The Predators have now won four in a row, are 11-1-1 in their last 13, and find themselves at the top of the Central with 48 points, three ahead of the second-place Blues. They took a mini road trip to the Pacific, beating the Golden Knights 3-2 on Tuesday, and the Los Angeles Kings 4-2 on Thursday.

Goaltender Juuse Saros posted a season-high 46 saves against the Kings. Forward Filip Forsberg, who has been the subject of trade rumors in recent years of middling results for the Predators, has been flexing his value with six points in his last three games.

The crafty off-winger was probably slated to play for Team Sweden in the next Winter games before the NHL pulled its players out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Still, the dominance of Forsberg is just one of several reasons the Preds have to be positive moving forward. Other reasons being: a power play quarterbacked by Roman Josi that scored twice in the first period against LA and stellar goaltending, as mentioned earlier.

Forsberg entered Protocol later in the week, missing the Saturday night contest against the Coyotes. The Predators were still able to pull out a 4-2 victory to extend their streak to four wins.

St. Louis Blues (20-10-5)

The Blues had a relatively slow week after fireworks at the 2022 Winter Classic on Jan. 1. They beat the Wild 6-4 in the outdoor game and Blues center Jordan Kyrou tallied two goals and two assists.

Going into the week, they fell 5-3 to the meteoric Pittsburgh Penguins. It seems that despite the recent rise as Central Division heroes in December, they are just NPCs in a Penguins/Crosby January narrative. But Kyrou still found himself on the board, making his case to be on the ballot for All-Star voting.

The Blues hosted the Capitals last night and won 5-1, putting themselves within a point of the first-place Predators. Pavel Buchnevich is trending with 33 points. On Friday night, he scored two goals and an assist.

Winnipeg Jets (16-12-5)

It’s been house of darkness, house of light for the Jets. They earned quality wins against the Blues and Golden Knights, but lost handily to maybe their biggest opponent in the Avalanche. First-line center Mark Scheifele is on a four-game point streak, but veteran Paul Stastny was scratched Thursday due to an undisclosed injury. Also missing was forward Jansen Harkins and defensemen Dylan DeMelo.

The week was not without some spectacle, as the Jets’ big boys were out to play. Team points leader Kyle Connor, everyone (Another Central Division stud on the All-Star ballot):

As their next game is scheduled to be played a week from now, the cup gets cold and we’re stuck reading the tea leaves to see where the Jets actually stand. They entered Dan Rosen’s Super 16 power rankings on Wednesday at No. 16, before their latest loss to the Avalanche. But this feat comes alongside the rising of many of their Central Division peers in the rankings, as well.

Suffice to say, the division seems to be getting more competitive down the stretch, and the Jets will have to keep Schiefele, Connor and others burning bright to stay relevant.