Central Division closest race in the league

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Central Division closest race in the league

The Bulls seem to have found their stride after a rough November, but the rest of the Central Division is surprisingly keeping pace.
Winners in eight of their last 11, the Bulls have jumped from 6-7 to 14-10, and have sat atop the Central standings the last week. The impressive play of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, both of whom are logging 40 minutes per night, has the Bulls in contention even without the services of Derrick Rose.
The Bulls may have the weakest record of any first-place team of any division, but the Central stands as the closest race in the league, and one of two divisions with three teams better than .500, as Christmas nears.
Three teams -- Chicago, Milwaukee and Indiana -- are within 1.5 games of each other. The next closest race involving three teams in a division is the Southwest, where Houston (12-12) sits 5.5 games back of San Antonio (19-8) and 5 behind Memphis (16-6).
The Bucks have feasted on a rather easy schedule to win six of their last nine games, all in December. During that stretch, the only team better than .500 the Bucks have defeated is Brooklyn (13-11).
Indiana has also maintained pace by winning nine of 14 games dating back to Nov. 19. But of teams with a winning record, the Pacers are just 1-10 against other winning teams. With games against Utah, Chicago, Atlanta and Memphis to close the month, the Pacers will know more about their squad's ability to remain in the Central division race by the time the calendar hits 2013.
DivisionWin Teams above .500Atlantic (East).5042 (NYK, BRK)Central (E).4783 (CHI, MKE, IND)Southeast (E).4602 (MIA, ATL)Northwest (West).5814 (OKC, DEN, UTAH, MIN)Pacific (W).5162 (LAC, GSW)Southwest (W).5242 (SAS, MEM)
No one will argue the Central division as being the league's best, but as it stands it is the Eastern Conference's most competitive division and the closest race in the league. The standings may change when the Pacers get Danny Granger (knee) back in February or when Rose returns for the Bulls, but for now it's looking like a three-team race that should continue late into the season.

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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Scott Darling gets the nod.

Joel Quenneville is giving a struggling Corey Crawford a breather tonight, electing to go with Darling in the final game of the father's road trip. Darling is 11-4-2 with a 2.34 goals against average, .924 save percentage and one shutout in 20 games this season. His numbers aren't as great on the road, where he is 4-2-1 with a 2.83 GAA and .901 save percentage compared to a 7-2-1 record with a 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage at home, but he fared well against Boston last season. The Lemont native stopped 42 of 46 shots, good for a .913 save percentage, in a 6-4 win at the United Center last April.

2. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line.

The Blackhawks' trio of Artem Anisimov, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin had a rare zero points in Tuesday's 6-4 win over Colorado, but don't expect to see that again. In fact, it could be the opposite. In their last meeting against the Bruins, a 6-4 win on April 3 during the 2015-16 season, they combined for 11 points (five goals, six assists), highlighted by a Kane hat trick that put him at 100 points on the season for the first time in his career. 

3. How the rookies build off a monsterous game.

In arguably the most well-rounded victory of the season Tuesday in Colorado, the Blackhawks had three rookies that had multi-point efforts. Vinnie Hinostroza had two goals, including the game winner. Tanner Kero had two goals and one assist, while Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. It was the top-six that was doing the heavy lifting earlier in the season, now the bottom-six is slowly starting to contribute on a consistent basis. The Blackhawks will be in great shape if they can confidently roll four lines that have the potential to find the back of the net on any given shift.

4. Patrice Bergeron vs. Jonathan Toews.

Two of the best two-way centers in the league will go head-to-head, and it's always a fun matchup to watch. Bergeron leads the league with 597 faceoff wins, and is ranked fifth with a 58.4 percentage at the dot while Toews ranks eighth in wins with 473 — despite missing nine games with a back injury — and sits at sixth with a 57.5 percentage. Both of the perennial Selke Trophy candidates have struggled offensively this season, with Bergeron recording only 21 points in 45 games and Toews with 22 points in 38 contests. Bergeron has been heating up as of late, though, scoring three goals and six assists in his last eight games. Bergeron also leads the league in possession numbers, with the Bruins controlling 61.9 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when he's on the ice.

5. Brad Marchand.

In September, Marchand inked an eight-year, $49 million deal and it's already paying dividends for the Bruins. He has 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in his last eight games, and 45 points total, which is by far the most on his team and tied for sixth in the NHL. He's 16 points away from tying his career high of 61 set last season, with a little less than half the year to go. He's also had great success against the Blackhawks. In his last six games against Chicago, dating back to the 2013-14 campaign, he has registered at least a point in all of them, scoring four goals and adding five assists. To make life more difficult, he's a player that enjoys getting under people's skin, so expect him to be a big factor tonight.

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