Winning streak has Hawks on the doorstep of the Central Division lead

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NelsonBrock Nelson, New York Islanders
Nelson led the way in the Isles' 5-2 rout of the Columbus Blue Jackets, scoring a hat trick and an assist for his first multipoint game in the past 23.

KinkaidKeith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils
Kinkaid made 32 saves against the St. Louis Blues, but he still took the loss in the Devils' 5-2 defeat. He has now lost three of his past four starts dating back to mid-December.

Will the Blackhawks win the Central Division?

Pierre LeBrun@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Are the Chicago Blackhawks on their way to displacing the Dallas Stars atop the mighty Central Division? And should we be worried about the Nashville Predators? Chicago's 3-2 win over Nashville on Tuesday was a tale of two different teams. The reigning Stanley Cup champs have won eight straight games to pull to within two points of first-place Dallas, though the Stars have a game in hand. Still, the Central penthouse that seemed unreachable a month ago is now just one step away from Hawks captain Jonathan Toews knocking on the door and asking his Dallas counterpart, Jamie Benn, for the keys. What's so impressive about the Blackhawks' rise is that it comes after they've changed so many parts. General manager Stan Bowman and his uncanny ability to juggle the salary cap remain, but with younger blood in the lineup, Chicago is still the team we're used to seeing. Doing this year after year is so darn amazing. Now, the Preds? My goodness. Last week's trade of defenseman Seth Jones for forward Ryan Johansen has changed nothing so far. Nashville has now lost six of its past seven games and remains tied with the Colorado Avalanche for the last playoff spot in the West, just a point ahead of the Vancouver Canucks. Just as shockingly, other Pacific Division teams have suddenly thrust themselves into the wild-card chase with Nashville, Colorado and the Winnipeg Jets. While Nashville's scoring issues are mostly to blame, it's worth mentioning again that Pekka Rinne's .905 save percentage is certainly not what we're used to getting from him, down from his .923 save percentage last season. Just saying.

Scott Burnside@ESPN_Burnside: First of all, congrats to Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville, whose 782nd career win moved him into a tie with the legendary Al Arbour for No. 2 on the all-time list. The Blackhawks played without an ill Artem Anisimov, who has anchored a line with Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin so well this season, but it didn't matter. Goaltender Corey Crawford reminded us of how much the All-Star process stinks (he was a notable snub) by stopping 41 of 43 shots. Of course, because the All-Star Game is in Nashville later this month, the Preds will have Rinne in goal along with teammates Shea Weber and Roman Josi, while Crawford presumably relaxes somewhere warm. You can't blame Rinne for Tuesday's loss, though, as there were defensive breakdowns on all three Chicago goals, all of which were scored at even strength. Too early to judge Johansen, of course, but he did pick up an assist on the Preds' final goal in the last minute. If you're a glass-half-full person, you'll note that Nashville has played poorly for a long time now -- they last won more than two in a row in late October -- but still own a playoff spot. For today, at least. And consider this: it's not much of a stretch to imagine that if the Preds can keep those teams Pierre noted at bay, we could easily see another Chicago-Nashville playoff series this spring, because I think the Blackhawks are going to unseat Dallas the Central's kings of the regular season.

Craig Custance@CraigCustance: Easy on crowning the Blackhawks the Central champs, Scotty. I love Chicago and would have a hard time betting against them in a playoff series, but in terms of this regular-season race, we're getting a snapshot that catches Chicago at its best and Dallas sputtering a bit. If anything, I think this is a good thing for the Stars because they jumped out to such a big lead that they might have been sapped of any motivation to play hard. Now there's a race, but I'm not ready to concede the Central to the Blackhawks. In fact, I'm sticking with my preseason pick in the Stars. Chicago knows how to pace itself over the course of a long season and that team will throttle down at some point. As great as the Blackhawks are, they've only won the division once since 2010-11. That group has an uncanny ability to manage the ebbs and flows of the regular season and come out of the grind in good shape for the playoffs. They're not going to have the pedal to the floor all season. The team I'm more concerned about is in Nashville, which has an even-strength save percentage (.922) that puts them 23rd in the league. It's going to be hard to stay in the race if that doesn't improve.

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