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Five burning Central Division questions

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The Sports Network
9/20/2011 10:12:05 AM
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Detroit Red Wings have been a model of consistency finishing first or second in the Central 17 straight seasons. Is there a chance the streak could end in the 2011-12 campaign?

Goaltender Jimmy Howard was terrible last year ranking 33rd in the league in goals-against average at 2.79 and 30th in save percentage at .908. But despite those dreadful numbers, the New York-native still recorded 37 victories for a second-straight season. Given that final statistic, Detroit's key question is: If Howard regains his 2009-10 form, how much better will the Wings be?

When the netminder was at his best two years ago, the pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski was dominant. The two were broken up last season and Lidstrom was a minus for the first time in his illustrious career. In fact, only three other Western Conference squads allowed more goals than Mike Babcock's team and it will be up to Howard (and maybe even Ty Conklin) to reverse those numbers. It is uncertain how much Detroit will miss Rafalski but the presence of Ian White should alleviate the concerns.

One thing in the Red Wings favor is the fact they only play three games in four nights six times the entire season. Conversely, the Blackhawks have 17. For a veteran squad that could be a huge advantage. Look for Howard to bounce back as most goalies do after a down season. Will it be enough to garner first place in the tight Central Division? Only time will tell.

WHERE WILL THE SCORING COME FROM IN NASHVILLE?

A lot of pundits are expecting the Predators to plummet this season due to a lack of offense. Don't be alarmed by those prognostications, especially since all top eight point-getters return. It's true the loss of forwards Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, and J.P. Dumont might take its toll, but Cal Wilson (who missed 44 games last year), Niclas Bergfors, and Blake Geoffrion should make up the difference.

The Predators were No. 1 in the division (and fourth in the conference) in five-on-five play last season at plus 22. They were also in the top half of the league with 173 even-strength goals after coming in a tie for ninth the year before. Unfortunately, expecting Pekka Rinne to match last season's numbers with almost half of the defense unproven at the NHL level is unrealistic.

WHICH JAROSLAV HALAK WILL SHOW UP FOR THE BLUES?

St. Louis was eager to take Jaroslav Halak of Montreal's hands prior to last season but the former playoff hero was beset with injuries all year long and never really got in the groove. Regardless, he was still able to win 27 games with a 2.48 GAA, which almost duplicated his 2009-10 numbers of 26 victories with a 2.40 GAA. The one main difference was a major drop in save percentage from .924 to .910.

There were two main causes for the decline. One was Halak's own doing by failing to apply himself the way he did in Montreal. The other was playing in front of a defense that was injured more than he was. The Blues two best defensive defensemen - Barret Jackman and Roman Polak - played in 60 and 55 games, respectively, while oft-injured Carlo Colaiacovo suited up for just 65.

With better health and continued offensive firepower from four above-average lines, St. Louis will make a run for the top spot in the division.

CAN COREY CRAWFORD DUPLICATE HIS 2010-11 SEASON?

The Blackhawks brought in Marty Turco to succeed Antti Niemi in goal last season and the veteran was supplanted by a goalie with five career starts.

Corey Crawford kept Chicago in the playoff hunt all season long and almost knocked Vancouver out in the first round of the playoffs before getting beat by Alexandre Burrows in overtime of the seventh and deciding game.

The 26-year-old must now overcome a possible slump that wrecked the second full seasons for Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Steve Mason, and Jimmy Howard. However, two things point in Crawford's favor heading into 2011-12.

First, he wasn't some hot-shot, first-round draft choice like Price and Rask. Second, he was extremely consistent in his first full campaign unlike Mason and Howard. The former recorded 10 shutouts and ranked second in the league in goals-against average in his rookie campaign, but posted a 3.20 GAA in his 20 defeats. The latter tied Halak for fourth best save percentage at .924 but his GAA average in his 15 losses was 3.01. Crawford, on the other hand, kept his GAA below 3.00 in his 18 losses, a remarkable achievement for any goalie let alone one in his first full season.

WILL RICK NASH AND JEFF CARTER MESH ON THE JACKETS TOP LINE?

On the surface, the Jeff Carter-Rick Nash combination does not appear to be a solid mix. Both are shoot-first players who have more career goals than assists. In fact, the two stars finished in the top six in shots this past season. Carter is not your prototypical center which is why he was on the wing for the Flyers last year. Don't be surprised if the two get broken up by Christmas.

Columbus as a whole improved itself on the power play with the additions of Carter and defenseman James Wisniewski but the loss of defensive defenseman Jan Hejda will hurt more than the club expects. Look for the Blue Jackets to give up a ton of goals and finish 26th in the league in goals allowed for a third straight season.

Jimmy Howard (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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