NHL 2011-12 Eastern Conference Preview

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NHL 2011-12 Eastern Conference Preview
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The Prince of Wales Trophy goes to the NHL Eastern Conference champion each May

Each year, the winner of the Eastern Conference is awarded the Prince of Wales Trophy.

In my Western Conference preview, I pointed out that this used to be the best the teams out east could accomplish. From 1996-2002, the New Jersey Devils were the lone eastern team to win a Stanley Cup (2000).

In the eight seasons since, the Prince of Wales Trophy has been a precursor to a Stanley Cup five times.

One reason is the easier travel schedule: Eastern Conference teams are all within the same time zone, within an hour of nearly all their division rivals and no more than three hours away from anywhere they will have to travel to twice.

The Dallas Stars are that far away from division rivals to which they will travel three times. The Western Conference also spans all four time zones, which becomes brutal in the playoffs.

Vancouver traveled over 40 hours over the playoffs and played six games at least two time zones away by the time they played Boston in the finals. Conversely, the Bruins traveled under 20 hours and had no such games.

That is one full day lost. That is why less travel is not just an advantage because of jet lag and the difficulty of adjusting your body clock to a different time. It also allows Eastern Conference teams an average of about two more practices a month during the regular season.

This might not sound like a lot, but teams out west often can do no more than a skate-around or they will wear down, leading to injuries. Since they rarely hold 10 full practices each month, their eastern counterparts are getting about 25 percent more of them each year.

Before the salary cap, the elite teams in the Western Conference had superior enough rosters to overcome this disadvantage. Now there is more parity, giving the east an advantage.

But this season Winnipeg is in the Southeast Division. They will have the most brutal travel schedule but there will be a ripple effect throughout the entire conference. Teams in their own division will have to make that long jaunt three times each, and other teams only once.

Will this level the playing field enough to open the door for the Western Conference, who have been competitive even while fighting the travel disadvantage?

Before we know how much it will hurt the winner of that conference (see the link above), we need to know how the Eastern Conference will play out.

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