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Central no longer a joke with Hawks, Blues and Jackets much improved

The Canadian Press
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St. Louis Blues' Mike Johnson, center, is congratulated by teammates Keith Tkachuk (7) and Bryce Salvador (27) for his goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in the second period in an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 1, 2007, in St. Louis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Bill Boyce Author: The Hockey News

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Central no longer a joke with Hawks, Blues and Jackets much improved

The Canadian Press
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Only one division in the NHL can boast having every single team over the .500 mark. Surprisingly, it's the Central.

Widely considered the weakest of the league's six divisions over the last few years, where Detroit has captured six straight titles, the Central has some spine this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets are vastly improved while the Nashville Predators have not tumbled badly as many had predicted.

"They're all good teams," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock told The Canadian Press this week.

"We don't have any nights off," added Babcock. "Not that I think we felt like that before either. But you go through our record last year with Chicago, I think they took one point off us and this year they've beat us four times. So there's a big swing right there."

The Wings were challenged for divisional supremacy the last few years by the Predators as both clubs piled up the points against the other three teams. When the Predators cut payroll over the off-season and lost several high-profile names, some automatically thought the Wings would now have an easier time than ever in the Central.

They're still in first place thanks to a terrific opening two months of the season but they're only 4-5-2 against divisional opponents.

"They're still the king of the division," Chicago Blackhawks head coach Denis Savard said of the Wings. "They're still going to be tough, but at least when we go to play them now we've got a bit of confidence that we can beat them. No question. Although we know we have to be at our very best and we can't make mistakes."

Babcock welcomes the battle in his own division.

"I think it's a real positive thing for the league and I think it's a real positive thing for the Detroit Red Wings because I think battling every day is a real important thing to have success at the end," said Babcock. "I really believe that."

The Blues, Blue Jackets and Blackhawks have all taken major steps after collectively going 21 games under .500 last season.

"We're not overwhelmed by playing Nashville or Detroit anymore," said Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock. "The big thing for us right now is that teams like St. Louis, Chicago and ourselves - we're different yes - but we're all exciting. All three teams have energy in their game right now."

Added Blues president John Davidson: "It's a good division. There's been a real good infusion of youth, which has made a difference."

St. Louis added Paul Kariya, reacquired Keith Tkachuk and have seen some younger players step up under the great coaching of Andy Murray. Speaking of great coaching, Hitchcock is up to his old tricks in Columbus, where the Jackets are overachieving.

"They play really, really hard," Davidson said of the Jackets. "When you look at how (Rick) Nash is playing and the improvement of (Nikolai) Zherdev in particular - they're buying in."

Hitchcock is amazed at what's happening in the Music City.

"Quite frankly, as impressive as everything is in our division, the team that's been most impressive to me has been Nashville," said Hitchcock. "Because they lost a lot and now they're playing better than ever. ...

"They dipped and everybody thought, 'This is going to be good. We're going to get some points.' But it hasn't changed a bit. They're back there running with the big guys again. I think Barry (Trotz) and his staff have done a wonderful job in getting that team to the next level. So it's made it even doubly difficult for all of us."

When Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and Tomas Vokoun left Nashville, they were written off by many.

"We still felt we had a pretty good team. It's something we rallied around," said Predators head coach Barry Trotz. "We said to ourselves, 'We've got something to prove here. We're a good hockey team.' We don't feel sorry for ourselves. ...

"This team that I have right now, they're probably the most resilient group I've ever had. Nothing ever seems to affect them."

Then you've the got the run-and-gun Hawks, one of the most entertaining teams in the league with Calder Trophy candidates Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews leading the way.

"Chicago is a jewel of a franchise, that place is going to be rocking for the next few years," said Trotz.

Having a hockey buzz back in Chicago after a dismal decade is among the best stories in the NHL so far this season. It's an Original Six franchise that has long been neglected.

"We took our lumps the last couple of years but you know, we're on the right track," said Savard. "We're not there yet, we know that, but at least we've made some strides and hopefully will continue to do so."

Savard, who took over as head coach of the Hawks last November, is holding his own in a division that features four of the game's brightest coaches in Murray, Hitchcock, Babcock and Trotz.

"I think the coaching in this division is as good as anywhere," said Davidson. "The preparation and the direction these teams going in each night - it's really impressive."

Hitchcock says there aren't many secrets between him and Trotz and Babcock and Murray.

"It's interesting because you've got four really good friends and we know each other intimately," said Hitchcock. "And then you've got Denis Savard, who's a folk hero and who has done a great job in Chicago. The big thing for me is the preparation of the opponent. I mean, I know those other three coaches very well and I know how well they prepare their teams. Every game is like a playoff game because their teams are so well prepared.

"It's the biggest challenge I've ever had in my life because you know every game is going to be coming down to the third period," added Hitchcock. "It's like, 'what's going to happen?' Because we're all going to take points from each other right now. That's what's going to be really interesting."

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Central no longer a joke with Hawks, Blues and Jackets much improved