OTTAWA - For the top four teams in the Central Division - the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and the Blackhawks -- the All-Star break had to be a welcome vacation from the all-out fight they're in.
But their stars couldn't escape talk of it over the All-Star game weekend. The most dominant division in hockey was a hot topic as some of the most dominating players in the game gathered in Ottawa.
"You've got four teams who are right there at the top in the West," Hawks forward Patrick Kane said. "Everyone knows how tough the West is. You could be up 90-plus points and still be competing for a playoff spot.
"Every game is important, especially down the stretch [and] especially when you're playing division teams. They are more like four-point games."
Making things more interesting is that the Hawks, Red Wings, Blues and Predators are active to some extent in the trade market, searching for players to propel them past one other. The Central is the only division with four teams over 60 points at the break. Not only are they competing for the division title, but also for the fourth seed and the home ice that comes with it for the playoffs.
Predators defenseman Ryan Suter also caused a stir at media day when he said he doesn't believe he'll re-sign by the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Suter, a top-2 defenseman on any team, is a hot name in trade rumors since some believe Nashville won't be able to retain the looming unrestricted free agent. Suter and defense partner Shea Weber represented the Predators in the All-Star game.
For the Hawks, who fell to fourth in the division and sixth in the conference after back-to-back losses to the Predators before the break, the search for a top-4 defenseman is ongoing. But general manager Stan Bowman was able to add depth at center Friday by acquiring 36-year-old veteran Brendan Morrison from the Calgary Flames in exchange for defense prospect Brian Connelly, 25, who had fallen down the depth chart.
"He's a great team guy," Flames All-Star Jarome Iginla, a former linemate of Morrison's, said. "He's still a good player. He's come back and he's been fighting a few injuries, but he's a very smart player.
"He'll find ways to be effective. He can still have big nights. He came back from his [torn anterior cruciate ligament] and had a four-point night. He's still a crafty guy."
Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, whom Kane considers one of the top two players in the league with Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, said it's fun to have the standings so close.
"This year and last year, every team is close," said Datsyuk, who represented Detroit with goalie Jimmy Howard. "One, two missed games and you're behind everybody. Every year it gets tougher and tougher. [But] I like it where it's closer and the more you need to work. It makes you better everyday."
The turnaround of the Blues under new coach Ken Hitchcock has only made the Central race more compelling. The Blues only sent goalie Brian Elliott to the All-Star game.
"What a turnaround in the season. They switch the coach and all of a sudden they're such a tougher team to play against," Hossa said. "Their goalies play unbelievable.
"They are playing more like a team. They are playing as a five-guy unit in the [defensive] zone and they are coming back hard. They've really improved in every direction."