• On Hockey: Central division report card after first third of the season

    Last week, I took a look at the Pacific Division at the one-third mark of the season. This week, we’re going to jump over to the Central Division, which, in my opinion is the most competitive one in all of hockey.

    1. Chicago Blackhawks (15-0-3)

    Wow. I’ve raved about them in past blogs, but I have no choice but to reiterate the praise and awe that they deserve for their performance so far. 18 games and zero regulation losses. 33 out of a possible 36 points. Their goalies, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, both possess a goals allowed average (GAA) of 2.10 or fewer, and both hold a save percentage of .930 or better:. Simply phenomenal. Their offense is unbelievably talented - Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are on a tear right now. They have solid scoring depth, backed by a superb defense that allows the fewest goals in the league, and is also the league’s second-best penalty-killing unit. They already boast the best goal differential in hockey. Just wait until Patrick Sharp finds his 35-goal-a-year stride. This team looks unbeatable right now.

    Grade: A++ (if there is a grade that high, they certainly deserve it).

    2. St. Louis Blues (10-6-2)

    There is no question that they are overshadowed (just like everyone else) by the dominance of the Blackhawks. But quietly, this is a very good team. I love the Blues’ offensive depth – they have eight players with at least three goals, and that has them at sixth in the league in goals per game. Their power play of 30.6 percent is absolutely lethal. The defense, on the other hand is a little lethargic right now. The only thing that is confusing about them so far: goalie Jaroslav Halak features both a 1.70 GAA and only a .911 save percentage. What’s up the that? Anyhow, I really like the way this team is constructed and I think they will finish second in the central. Given how tough this division is, that’s actually saying something.

    Grade: B+

    3. Detroit Red Wings (9-7-3)

    I wrote in the first edition of my power rankings a couple of weeks ago, that this team has been on a roller coaster this season. They still are, but seem to be finding their way after whopping Vancouver and Nashville at home last week. Their offense is aging, but still has the talent to be competitive. Henrik Zetterburg and Pavel Datsyuk are still top-line caliber players that can carry a team through a rough offensive stretch. The Wings also have also found a keeper in young center Damien Brunner. Their defense is suspect (as it has been since Nick Lidstrom retired a couple of years ago) and Jimmy Howard has been a little inconsistent in net. In this division, you can survive offensive droughts as long as you have a quality defense and a hot goalie stopping pucks. This is an “A” team that is not quite playing like it right now.

    Grade: B

    4. Nashville Predators (8-6-5)

    This team is offensively starved, ranking last in the league in goals per game. That really is unbelievable considering the weapons on their roster. Their third-ranked defense, seventh-ranked penalty kill and a god-like Pekka Rinne in between the pipes are keeping them afloat in the central. But Rinne can’t start every game, and he certainly won’t repeat last year’s sterling season (when he won 40 games , and was probably robbed of the Vezina award) if his team is only averaging 1.9 goals a night. The offense is well-balanced though, and it should start to heat up soon. The defense is thriving even after losing Ryan Suter to free agency. If they can put it all together, they can be a dangerous club in the playoffs.

    Grade: B-

    5. Columbus Blue Jackets (5-12-2)

    Well, let’s be nice – they’ve got some work to do. They rank no higher than 20th in the league in any offensive category. Their single bright spot has been the penalty kill, which ranks 10th in the league. Overall, they have an under average roster that lacks star power. Not much else to say about them.

    Grade: D

    Overall, this is an elite division. It is home to four playoff-caliber teams, which should make for some extra exciting hockey down the stretch of this season.

  • Top NBA storylines: LeBron somehow getting better, Bulls could be a dark horse

    Here are two storylines worth watching this week in the NBA?

    1. LeBron James reaching new heights

    Whenever it seems impossible for Lebron James to take his game to another level, he seems to deliver. After putting away questions about his mental resilience with the 2012 NBA Championship victory, James is playing the game with passion and having fun. According to James, that’s what has fueled his rise to meteoric levels of efficiency, scoring more than 30 points per game and shooting 60 percent six games in a row at one point. It seemed that Kevin Durant had been in Lebron James’ realm in terms of MVP discussions, but James has  stomped over any question about who is the most valuable player in the NBA. After finally achieving his physical and mental apex, Lebron James seems ready to not only match Michael Jordan, but even surpass the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-Time).

    2. Are the Bulls the dark-horse contender?

    As much talk there is about teams like the Pacers, Nuggets, and Grizzlies, a playoff team without a superstar is rarely the recipe for success. With a ridiculously effective Bulls defense (third in the NBA) and the (probable) return of the most explosive point guard in Derrick Rose, the Bulls are sure to push a top seed. Without Rose, the Bulls have gone 32-24 and, if the postseason began today, would be the No. 6 seed, matched up with the Knicks. Chicago has home games against Cleveland, Philadelphia and Brooklyn this week, followed by a date at current No. 2 seed Indiana on Sunday.