I have been influenced in my thinking by both west and east — Nelson Mandela
There is a lot of justifiable swagger in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Following the WHL’s failure in 1926 which left the NHL as the sole competitor for the Stanley Cup, teams that reside presently in the East won the championship an amazing fifty four times between 1927 and 1983, led by the Montreal Canadiens’ twenty titles. In recent years, eight of the last thirteen Cups were won by Eastern Conference teams.
It’s a conference filled with star power. Try Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Henrik Zetterberg, Martin St. Louis, Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Zdeno Chara, Dustin Byfuglien, Martin Brodeur, Marc-Andre Fleury, Tuukka Rask, and Carey Price, to name a few. A heck of a lot of those guys will be wiping grubby fingerprints off of their name placards in the hockey Hall of Fame before it’s all said and done.
As for today, the venerable Boston Bruins sit atop the conference, the Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins are on their heels and poised to do serious damage come playoff time, the Detroit Red Wings are always dangerous and the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning are, well, a surprising upstart. With Montreal, Toronto, Washington and others lurking about as well, the East promises to be dangerous grounds for whichever of the West’s young whippersnapper teams makes it all the way through this season.
As to the question of which conference is superior, does the information I’ve presented mean the case is closed? Not hardly.
The West is on an upswing
Admittedly, I teased with the number of Cups statistic, because the even more recent math is that the West has claimed the Cup three out of the past four years, and four of the last seven. When one of those teams is the longtime downtrodden Los Angeles Kings (2011-12), you know that not only is the conference on the rise, but there are severe frost warnings chilling the fire and brimstone somewhere very far south of here.
This year, the regular season numbers are even more compelling. Through Thanksgiving, Western Conference teams have 196 wins and 438 points, as compared to 183 victories and 411 total points for Eastern teams. When considering overall wins and losses, there are nine winning teams out West to just five in the East. Six Western teams have won at least six of their past ten games; in the East, only three can make that claim.
The better offenses are out West
The league’s top six offensive clubs reside in the West: Chicago (3.54), St. Louis (3.44), San Jose (3.44), Phoenix (3.16), Anaheim (3.11) and Colorado (3.04). Conversely, its worst six offensive teams come from the East: Philadelphia (2.16), Florida (2.15), New Jersey (2.12), New York Rangers (2.12), Carolina (2.08) and Buffalo (1.62). The middle is even, but the wheat and the chaff have separated along conference lines.
On an individual basis, twelve of the top 20 leading scorers come from the West, along with 18 of the top 30.
The defenses are just about even between the conferences
The West is usually known as a more run-and-gun conference, whereas the East is where the bruisers hang out and the 2-1 overtime games are more the norm. Sure, it’s a stereotype, but it’s grounded in certain realities over the years that seem to have shifted during the West’s rise to prominence. The West has five of the top seven defenses, statistically speaking, but the top twenty is divided almost evenly (11-9 in favor of the East). Given that the top two defensive clubs are Montreal (2.00) and Boston (2.00), the conferences appear to be pretty similar in terms of keeping the puck out of the net.
The West gets the nod for special teams play
Power play effectiveness is decidedly in favor of the West, with the St. Louis Blues leading the way at 24.7% and ten of the top fifteen clubs coming from the conference. Penalty killing is more even, with Vancouver leading the league at 89.9% but eight of the top fifteen teams residing in the East. Overall, the tilt is toward the West when it comes to special teams.
When it comes to the Cup, do regular season metrics even matter?
Kings fans know the answer to this question better than anyone, as when the 2011-12 playoffs started, Los Angeles was the 8th seed in the West and faced to top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the opening round. In the face of slim odds, an unlikely 16-4 rampage through the playoffs won them their first Stanley Cup championship.
So no, they really don’t matter. The winner will be the team that puts it all together at the right time, as it always is. However, for the sake of discussion, it does appear that at least as of now, the West is the better overall conference.
Do you agree or disagree? Post your thoughts below, or tweet them to @McLaughlinWalt if you’d prefer.