The Stanley Cup playoffs are just days away from starting, and there are predictions and analysis galore, speculating who might win the Cup.
Of course, it's impossible to say for sure who will win, but there are reasons here and there to suspect teams have better chances than others.
With that in mind, there are reasons to favor the Eastern Conference to win the cup, and I'm going to look at some of those reasons here.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense under examination.
In the Eastern Conference, a playoff team has an average of 100.25 points, compared to 101.88 in the West. In the East, the teams average a goal differential of plus-24.4, as opposed to the West's plus-27.9. They're minor differences, but that's still almost an extra win per team in the West.
Unfortunately, a more talented field means a more difficult route to the finals for any team who will come out of the West. In the West, at least seven of the teams have to be taken seriously as threats to emerge, and probably all eight.
Can the same be said for the Eastern Conference? Some might argue so, but I certainly wouldn't take up that cause.
And if there are fewer contenders, that means there's an easier path. The Eastern team should be less beaten up and exhausted.
Of course, there are other contributors to team exhaustion. For instance...
There's more than 2,200 miles between these two teams.
Below is a table showing the four matchups from each conference. It also shows the distance (in miles) from arena to arena.
|Playoff Matchup||Cities||Distance Between Arenas|
|Rangers/Senators||New York to Ottawa||329.3 miles|
|Bruins/Capitals||Boston to Washington||394.1 miles|
|Panthers/Devils||Florida to New Jersey||1,068.1 miles|
|Penguins/Flyers||Pittsburgh to Philadelphia||257.2 miles|
|Canucks/Kings||Vancouver to Los Angeles||1,082.5 miles|
|Blues/Sharks||St. Louis to San Jose||1,722 miles|
|Coyotes/Blackhawks||Phoenix to Chicago||1,457.6 miles|
|Predators/Red Wings||Nashville to Detroit||470.8 miles|
Notice anything interesting, there? Perhaps that the longest distance in the East would be the fourth-longest distance in the West?
It's a natural disadvantage the Western conference has bared for years. With more Western teams, that means more flying from state to state, spanning thousands of miles across the Midwest. In the East, it's basically just driving up and down the coast.
And it will stay that way in the East. The Rangers, Bruins, Caps, Devils, Penguins and Flyers are all just a few hundred miles apart, sometimes significantly fewer.
In the West, it's going to stay this bad. No matter who wins, you'll have teams as far east as Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, as far north as Vancouver and all throughout the area spanning to the Pacific.
Perhaps the best example I could give is the distance between one and two seeds. Should either of these matchups occur, it would make it the Conference finals. These teams would be worn-down, exhausted and still aware they have two series ahead of them. The Rangers and Bruins wouldn't have too much difficulty traveling back and forth, as there's a meager distance of 188.5 between arenas.
On the other hand, should Vancouver and St. Louis meet up in the end, they'd have the significantly-more-difficult distance of 1778.5 miles each time they switch cities.
Less travel time means more time to rest, more time to practice and less stress. It's far from fair, but it's an advantage the East gladly takes.
All distances obtained via Sport Map World
Home-ice advantage can be important in the playoffs. Though seemingly less effective than in other sports, playing that extra game at home might be what a team needs to make it through to the next round.
Unfortunately, even given that extra home game, a team either needs to be literally perfect in its home arena, or it needs to know how to win on the road.
When you look at the road records of playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, you can see why they're successful. The Flyers have the best record in the league at 25-13-3, meaning they got 53 points on the road this season. The Rangers, Bruins and Devils also each got at least 50 points from away games.
Comparatively, the Western Conference has one team, the Vancouver Canucks, who can boast that number.
This won't play too large a role in the playoffs until the Finals. In the East, more road games will be won. In the West, more home games.
That last part certainly makes sense, given that Western teams tend to be much more dominant at home. Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago have lost fewer than ten games in regulation at home this season. The Panthers are the only Eastern team to meet that standard.
Three teams—the Penguins, Rangers and Capitals—have each lost 15 or fewer games at home all season, including overtime and shootout losses. Meanwhile, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Vancouver, Nashville and San Jose all meet that criteria.
That's all a complicated way of saying that, in general, the West get their wins at home, whereas the East split them up more between home and away.
So where does that come into play in the playoffs? Well, it means that if a Western team has home-ice advantage in the Finals, they have a sizable advantage. But if an Eastern team has home-ice, it's an even larger advantage, because the Western team will have to win a road game.
This all becomes moot if Vancouver advances to the finals, as they seem particularly skilled both at home and on the road, and would also be guaranteed home-ice throughout the playoffs. However, if another Western team* were to find its way there, they could struggle mightily.
*The Central Division teams are a particularly good example. Of the four Central playoff teams, the Blues are three games above .500, the Preds six games above, the Wings four games below .500 and the Blackhawks exactly on the middle-mark.
Western Playoff Teams vs. East 82-44-18
Eastern Playoff Teams vs. West 75-51-18
Those numbers show that, heads-up, the West is better than the East, specifically by seven games.
However, there's more to be taken away from those numbers. Yes, overall the West is better, but three of the eight Eastern teams finished below .500 against the West. The Senators were 7-9-2, the Panthers 5-7-6 and the Caps 8-10-0. Those three teams also happen to have the three lowest point totals of Eastern playoff teams.
Without those three teams, the elite of the East are 55-25-10.
Comparatively, without the three worst Western teams (the Pacific Division teams, in this case), the top-five are 55-25-10.
That's right, if you look at the top-five from each conference vs. the other conference, they have the exact same records. Simply put, that means that, though the Western Conference might have a reputation as the superior conference and data would seem to reflect that, when looking at the top of the conference, neither coast is dominant—the West is just deeper in general.
This is not suggesting that the best of the East are better than those of the West, but they are definitely equal.
So with all this information, what can we take away?
Well, first off, the West has more good teams, meaning that each matchup will be more challenging. Western teams are better at home; if the home team wins often, that means longer series. Longer series in the West mean more travel, sometimes thousands of miles more.
The East, on the other hand, does not have as many great teams. There will be some easier series. There will also be a lot more road wins. Both of those result in shorter series, meaning more rest time. Even with all of that happening, they also have to travel less. That, combined with more rest time, makes for more energized players.
It's far from a sure thing, but with all the factors working against them, it would not be surprising to see a team emerge from the West that is physically battered, emotionally exhausted and short on rest. In the East, it wouldn't be surprising to see a team enter the finals having played fewer than 16 games.
The West has plenty of quality teams capable of winning the Cup, but more than likely, they'll be put through the roughest tests, and suffer because of it.