Why the NHL's Big, Bad Western Conference Owns the Little Brother East

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Why the NHL's Big, Bad Western Conference Owns the Little Brother East
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That was a great Stanley Cup Final, wasn’t it? Congrats to the Los Angeles Kings for their Cup victory in seven games over the Chicago Bl...what? There is still another series to win for the Kings before they are champs?

Oh. That’s right, there is this entity called the “Eastern Conference” isn’t there?

Snark aside, one can be forgiven for forgetting entirely about the NHL east of the Mississippi. It’s been true for a very long time now: West is best.

As Grantland's Sean McIndoe pointed out before this season, the Western Conference came in with a 12-year winning streak against the East. Every season, from 1999-2000 to 2012-13, Western teams won more games against Eastern ones in head-to-head matchups (from 1999-2004, tie games were still part of the equation). How did things turn out this past regular season for the East? Uh, not good.

The West went 246-150-52 against the East, its biggest margin in any of the last 13 years. The just-concluded Western Conference playoffs saw some breathtakingly great hockey, most especially the finals between Chicago and L.A. Honestly, didn’t we all wish that series could have been a best-of-700 or something? I’ve seen my share of hockey, and I’d say that might have been the best series I ever saw. Maybe the Colorado-Detroit, 1996 and ’97 Western finals were better (the 2002 series wasn’t bad either).

Now we get to see the New York Rangers, a 45-31-6 regular-season team and taken to seven games in the first two rounds and to six in another. It was not a dominant run to the final, in other words (and yes, the Kings also were taken to seven games in all three rounds—but those opponents were San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago, and they won all three Game 7s on the road).

Before keyboards of Rangers fans ignite with fury, let’s get it out there: They might win the damn thing. Brother Hank in net, Brothers St. Louis and Richards and Nash up front, Alain Vigneault behind the benchof course the Blueshirts can win a best-of-seven series against the Kings.

But we know it won’t happen. West is best. This Stanley Cup Final will probably be conservatively handicapped by Vegas wise guys at the start, but to me, it has a Seahawks-Broncos 2014 Super Bowl tinge-y feel to it.

Why is the West so much better than the East? It’s been much-discussed.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

“The mentality in the West was, you knew you had some size and skill, but you knew you had to check, be good defensively and be comfortable in low scoring games—because there were a lot of them,” Detroit general manager Ken Holland told Sportsnet’s Mark Spector, before his team moved to the East last year. “The West teams are built on good checking and good defenses. Chicago and St. Louis come to mind as two of the best defenses in the league.”

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has another theory: The top teams in the West are just so good that it makes everyone work that much harder to keep up.

“This has nothing to do with East vs. West. This has everything to do with Los Angeles and Chicago,” Hitchcock told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston last year. “This is as deep as I’ve ever seen it. I’ve never seen the West like this, where I think there’s eight or nine or 10 teams talking about 'If everything goes well, we might have a chance here.' This is going to be an absolute minefield to get through, just to get into the playoffs.”

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I put out a text today to the man whose hockey opinions I always hold sacred, 14-year NHL veteran and TSN analyst Dave Reid. He played in both conferences (Boston and Toronto in the East, Dallas and Colorado in the West). It’s been a few years since he last played (2001), but the man is as smart about the game as anyone aliveand likely quite a bit smarter.

Why is the West so much better than the East? It’s in the "Keeping up with the Joneses” theory, espoused somewhat by Holland and more emphatically by Hitchcock.

“For years, teams tried to catch the Red Wings and emulate what they were doing, then the Avalanche and Stars became elite teams. From there, the West had three teams to match up against,” Reid told me. “From those years, you had teams really working hard to draft and develop bigger, faster players just to keep up with them and it all has just kind of snowballed into this monster of a conference.”

Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Makes sense. Only the New Jersey Devils, with their Stanley Cups in 2000 and 2003 and several great teams in and around those years, have been able to make any legitimate claim on behalf of the Eastern Conference that the best, most successfully sustained team resided there.

Sure, teams like Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Carolina won Cups from the East, but the Lightning and Hurricanes were one-year wonders essentially. The Penguins haven't been a dominant team since winning it all in 2009.

The Bruins were thought to have the right stuff to be a possible dynasty and better than anything out West on a consistent basis, but this year’s loss to Montreal curbed those thoughts. (Let it be noted, though, that the Bruins were 18-4-6 against the West this season).

The overriding truth remains: The West is just a lot deeper than the East as far as excellence is concerned.

A team such as the Rangers might be able to win four out of seven. But overall, the West’s winning streak over the East is 13 years.

And counting.

 

Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.

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