Stretch run here for 3-team battle in Central


CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks clinched the Central Division title with eight games remaining last season.

Things aren't likely to be so comfortable this season.

The Blackhawks enter their final 20 regular-season games in a three-team race with the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche for the division title. The Blues lead the trio with a 40-14-6 record and 86 points in 60 games and are followed by the Blackhawks, who are 36-12-14 with 86 points in 62 games, and the Avalanche (39-17-5 with 83 points in 61 games). The Minnesota Wild are fourth with a 34-21-7 record with 75 points in 62 games.

"This year I think I see it very competitive," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said on Tuesday. "Right to the end, there's a lot of things to be decided in 20 games. Minnesota is going. Our division is going to be very competitive right through the end.

"Everybody has incentive to get into the playoff spot. There's going to be some very important games for opponents as well as ourselves. It should set up a very meaningful stretch run for basically everybody in our division."

The divisional standings are more important than ever due to this season's playoff format. The top three seeds of each division earn playoff spots and two wildcard spots are given. Division teams are likely to face off in the first two rounds. As of now, the Blues would play the Wild in the first round and the Blackhawks would play the Avalanche.

The Blackhawks and Avalanche understand what is at stake when they square off Tuesday at the United Center. The Blackhawks are 1-1-1 against the Avalanche this season, and they will play one final time in Colorado on March 12.

"[Division games are] definitely more important," Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad said. "I think you see in the standings they're three points behind us. This is a big game for us. Every game is tight, especially these divisional games. We're looking forward to those playoff type of hockey games."

Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said in January he didn't think his team would be able to compete with the Blackhawks for the division title. His tune has since changed.

"It's a big surprise to me," Roy said. "I guess we didn't expect to be where we are today. If someone had said to me in September we'll be three points behind the Hawks going into the last 21 games, I'd say where do I sign? It's a bit of a surprise.

"At the same time, this is the type of year we've been having. We started out 'Why not us?' We want to be even keel. We want to also make sure we want to take one day at a time. Tonight is another opportunity to do that. It's another challenge for us. We're playing an outstanding team. They're a very good team. They're obviously looking at winning a Stanley Cup. On our side, we're looking to surprise the world of hockey. I think we've been doing just a good job."

The Blackhawks have two remaining game with the Blues, and the Blues and Avalanche play two more times.

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has liked his team's chances whenever it's set a definitive goal. He believes the Blackhawks' goal now is finishing the last 20 games of the regular season as well as they can, make a run for first place in the Central and get ready for the playoffs.

"Whenever we've kind of looked at a section or a smaller period of season and said this is when we want to do well, we want to focus on one game at a time, set a short-term goal for ourselves say in the next couple of weeks or month, we find the way to do really well," Toews said. "If we can set our sights on playing well over the next month, we'll let that kind of snowball and carry us in the playoffs.

"Whether it's catching St. Louis or finishing at the top of our division or whatever, I think the most important thing is knowing that we're going to be ready to be the team we want to be come playoff time. That's what matters most to us, and that's what matters most to anybody. Once the playoffs start, whatever happened in the regular season is pretty much forgotten."