Sunday, April 6, 2003 Updated: April 9, 5:02 PM ET
Can an East team win the Cup? One might
By Chris Stevenson Special to ESPN.com
Scoop: The newest feature on the Stanley Cup is going to be a compass with the needle permanently pointed to the "W."
Engineers working in a bunker deep under the Hockey Hall of Fame have almost got it done in anticipation of what will surely be another victory by a Western Conference team this spring.
Scott Stevens was the last Eastern captain to kiss the Cup in 2000.
OK, so the Cup has been won by a team from the Western Conference six of the last seven years with the New Jersey Devils being the only Eastern Conference team to win it in that time (2000). When the Colorado Avalanche started the current run for Western teams in 1996, it snapped a string of five-straight Cups for Eastern teams.
So, the pendulum settles on the left side of the Continental Divide as long as you consider the Detroit Red Wings a Western team which, in the geographically-challenged NHL, is the way it is.
Most pundits (a nice word for people in the media who are paid to guess) are predicting another victory for the West this year. If it's not the Wings winning their third straight, it'll be the Dallas Stars or the Avs or even the Vancouver Canucks.
The Eastern representative will be there for nothing more than to play the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters, France to Germany, every PGA golfer to Tiger Woods.
OK, so the Carolina Hurricanes, last year's Eastern fodder, did absolutely nothing to dispel the theory of Western superiority last year.
This year will be different.
Here are eight reasons why:
1. In case you missed it, the Ottawa Senators were the NHL's best team this year. Of course, they are the best team, maybe ever, not to scare anybody. They have had other great regular seasons and disappeared like free beer at a frat party come April. This year will be different. The Senators' nucleus is more mature, they are deep and have added some much needed sandpaper in the likes of Vaclav Varada and Rob Ray. After winning two series in six years, coach Jacques Martin is getting his last shot at taking this team deep into the playoffs. A local radio station had a contest to come up with a playoff slogan. The winner: "Win, or you're all fired." Nothing like that to sharpen the focus.
2. Experience required. If you count New York Ranger goaltender Mike Richter as retired -- and many people do after a serious concussion -- there are only four active goaltenders who have won the Stanley Cup. They are split among the two conferences which at least makes the East's odds 50-50, right? They are Colorado's Patrick Roy (four); New Jersey's Martin Brodeur (two), Dallas' Ed Belfour (now with Toronto, one) and St. Louis' Chris Osgood (one*) (*Some say the Wings won despite Osgood.)
3. Exit 16W. That's where you get off the highway for the Meadowlands and Continental Airlines Arena, home of the Devils, the team that fun -- not to mention most of their fans -- forgot. You cannot overlook the fact the Devils
won a Cup not too long ago and Brodeur is capable of doing it almost by himself. The Devils have been playing playoff hockey for the last six months under coach Pat Burns. They capped off the last streak of Eastern Conference Cup winners in 1995, and are the only East team to win it since.
4. The Hitch. The Philadelphia Flyers' paychecks say they should be Cup contenders every year, but they have that delightful ability to implode in the postseason. It's got something to do with goaltending, we think. It's like everybody in the world can see it but Bob Clarke. But now they have a coach who's been there before in Ken Hitchcock. His greatest challenge will be to get Roman Cechmanek to believe he's Dominik Hasek. Hitch just might be able to do it.
5. You Gotta Be-Leaf. The Toronto Maple Leafs always find a way to May. They run on a mixture of adrenalin and passion and a backdrop of steady whining. The Leafs live on the Grassy Knoll where there is always a conspiracy against them. The us-against-the-world theme plays well for Leafs coach and GM Pat Quinn. They have guys like Gary Roberts and Darcy Tucker who play their best in the postseason and Ed Belfour, unlike his predecessor Curtis Joseph, has closed the deal before. In a wide-open East, they could be there in June.
6. The road's bumpier. There are three teams in the West (Dallas, Detroit and Colorado) pundits would likely rank ahead of anybody in the East as Stanley Cup favorites. They are going to have to Darwin each other before June. The theory is the Western rep will be more beaten up, but it doesn't seem to have hurt them the last few years.
7. The zebras. The crackdown on obstruction, say most players, died a quiet death a few months ago. The teams from the West might be more skilled, but that skill could be negated by non-calls. The Eastern teams -- especially
Philly and New Jersey, which tied for the fewest goals allowed -- excel in those close-checking, low-scoring games. If the games in the playoffs are called like the regular season, the Eastern teams could see themselves on more even footing.
8. Been there, done that. Of the 16 coaches in the playoffs, only three have coached teams to the Stanley Cup and none of them are coaching the same teams now. There is only one in the East, Hitchcock, who guided the 1999 Dallas Stars to their first Cup. There are two in the West, Marc Crawford of the Vancouver Canucks, who led the 1996 Colorado Avalanche and Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild, who won it with the 1995 Devils. Hitchcock gives the East some hope and since he's the last to do it, we'll give him the edge (thin logic, I know, but they insisted on eight reasons).
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.