- Mike Heika
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Ken Hitchcock knows a little bit about the Western Conference, having won five division titles in seven seasons as coach of the Dallas Stars. But as tough as his time was in the West, the Philadelphia Flyers coach said he has newfound respect for the competitiveness of the Eastern Conference.
"You see a lot more teams with bigger payrolls, and you see teams that are built big," Hitchcock said. "And it's not just one or two teams. Teams that are average size look really small out here."
By riding those bigger payrolls and bigger players, the East has turned around one of the dead-lock stats of the past five years -- that the West would always dominate head-to-head competition between the two conferences. Heading into Wednesday's games, the East had a 38-26-10-6 record or a .575 winning percentage. Compare that to the .493 of last season and it's surprising. Compare it to the .465 of two seasons ago and it's downright stunning.
"It's a conference built on size and trapping teams, and I think you've seen that formula is very successful,'' said center Jeremy Roenick, who joined the Flyers in 2001-02 after playing the first 13 years of his career in the West. "Teams out here are definitely getting better at what they do."
Stars center Stu Barnes, who played 10 consecutive seasons in the East before being traded to Dallas last season, said the Eastern Conference has been built on a game of "Follow the Leader."
"I think New Jersey has set an example that a lot of teams have followed," Barnes said. "They play a simple, straight-forward game and have been very successful at it. I think teams look at that and copy it, and I think they also look at it as, 'We have to beat that team to get out of the East, so how are we going to beat them?' They build their teams that way."
In trying to compete against the Devils, teams like Boston, Buffalo and Toronto have built teams better equipped to grind down the Western teams. The Bruins were 8-0-1-0 against the West after an early road swing. The Sabres were 5-3-0-0, and the Maple Leafs were 3-1-2-1.
"The rivalries and the competition is so intense out here, and you're really seeing teams push each other," Hitchcock said. "It's just the natural progress of things."
Through the natural progress, eight teams from the East had winning records, including four with three losses or fewer heading into Wednesday. The once-laughable Southeast Division had two teams in the top eight. Philly was holding off hard-charging New Jersey in the Atlantic only by fashioning a 10-2-4-1 record. The Ottawa Senators were at the bottom of the Northeast Division, but was plus-13 on goal differential.
A quick look at special teams statistics has the league's top four penalty-killing units -- always a sign of a good team -- hailing from the East.
But as much as the improvement of the East must be heralded, it's also pretty clear the West's top has sagged. The Colorado Avalanche have straightened their ship, but the Detroit Red Wings and Stars still are struggling.
"What are those teams against the East?" Detroit GM Ken Holland asked, before hearing that Dallas was 1-6-0-0, Detroit was 1-3-0-0 and Colorado was 1-3-0-0.
"That's 3-12-0; there's your difference right there," Holland said. "That is a huge swing in what we have seen in the past from these teams."
The Stars alone were 12-5-3-2 against the East last season, so many of the insiders say this season is an anomaly and not a trend.
"We just went through there a few weeks back, and it's such a tough place to play," Hitchcock said of the Flyers' 1-1-1-1 run through the West from Oct. 16-22. "It's such a speed conference, and we saw that every night."
Roenick too said he believes the trend will straighten.
"It's still very early in the season, so it's difficult to draw too many conclusions," Roenick said. "As the season goes on, there will be a clearer picture. You can bet teams like Dallas and Detroit won't stay down for long."
Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.