Five reasons West can win Cup
In June, the NHL's Western Conference will likely let us know who will be sipping from the Stanley Cup. With all due respect to the talented Sabres, the playoff-tested Devils and the upstart Penguins, this season, the West is in a league of its own. No East Coast bias here.
Here are five reasons why you should believe me:
Before you spill your coffee on the keyboard, Martin Brodeur was not traded to the Western Conference. But check out these numbers. Aside from Brodeur, the East's other starting goalies with playoff experience -- Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist and Ray Emery -- have a near-even combined record in the postseason (16-15). The remaining starters (Marc-Andre Fleury, Kari Lehtonen, Wade Dubielewicz and Johan Holmqvist) haven't even played in a postseason game. Yes, Cam Ward was a rookie when he helped lead the Hurricanes to a Cup last season, but he was definitely the exception, not the rule. Ward was just the fourth rookie goalie to lead his team to the promised land and the first since Patrick Roy did it 20 years earlier.
The eight Western Conference starters are Dominik Hasek, Marty Turco, Roberto Luongo, Evgeni Nabokov, Tomas Vokoun, Miikka Kiprusoff, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Niklas Backstrom. Those with playoff experience have won a combined 121 playoff games and four of them have been to the Stanley Cup finals.
Brodeur may be the best goalie in the league, but no playoff team has scored fewer goals this season than the Devils. My money is still on one of the West's talented goalies to steal Marty's thunder.
Ask any NHL player to describe the playoffs, and one of the first words out of his toothless mouth is "grind." The Stanley Cup journey lasts two months with up to 28 games and four different series. Physically and emotionally, there is nothing harder in sports.
That kind of frenetic pace is the norm in the West. Consider this: Over a one-week stretch (March 13-20), the Detroit Red Wings played four games in four different time zones. The last time the New Jersey Devils played a game outside the Eastern time zone was Nov. 27, when they played in Los Angeles. The Devils are one of five East playoff teams -- Buffalo on Jan. 10, Pittsburgh on Jan. 27, Atlanta on Feb. 13 and the Rangers on Dec. 14 -- who haven't played outside the Eastern time zone in the last two months.
Before you say the cushy regular-season travel schedule might benefit a team in the playoffs, remember the Red Wings, who always have one of the worst travel schedules, have won three of the last 10 Stanley Cups. Getting players acclimated to the "grind" early in the regular season makes those last eight weeks a little easier.
Even-strength goals may look good for plus/minus, but come playoff time, it's what you do with your special teams that counts. When a team is leading in a playoff game, even by a goal, you won't see its defensemen pinching or its forwards being as aggressive on the forecheck. With tighter systems in place and less offensive space to maneuver, how well you capitalize on the power play and how well you survive a man down often is the difference between winning and going home.
Five of the West's playoff teams are ranked within the top 10 in the league on the power play (San Jose, Anaheim, Minnesota, Dallas and Calgary). Seven of the West's playoff teams also rank in the top 13 in penalty killing, including four in the top six.
East playoff teams have struggled on the penalty kill, with four teams (Atlanta, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Tampa) sitting in the bottom half of the league.
Since mid-March, the Western Conference playoff picture has pretty much been settled. Except for the Flames, who toyed with Avalanche fans over the last few weeks, the other seven teams have been locked into their playoff spots.
So, you've read David Amber's argument for the Western Conference, but what about the East? Here is E.J. Hradek's five reasons why the Eastern Conference could bring home its fourth straight Cup.
• Hradek's reasons for East
But as of March 30, there were still six teams in the East separated by just three points. Few teams in the East had already clinched a spot and the rest faced all-out wars on the ice, night in and night out until the regular season's final weekend. East coaches were denied the luxury of resting key players, which would undoubtedly upset the competitive balance of the conference.
In the month of March alone, Anaheim and Dallas each played 10 games against teams that were not in the playoff chase. The Devils, meanwhile, played 14 games in March, and only three of those games did not have some kind of playoff implications.
You can't spin the record
Two teams from the West, Columbus and Chicago, had a losing record against the East. That's it. Every other West team has at least a .500 record against the East. In fact, the eight playoff teams went a combined 49-21-10 against the East. The top three East seeds, Buffalo, New Jersey and Atlanta, were a combined 10-16-4 versus the West.
And check out how some of the East's best players have fared versus the West: Brodeur has just two wins in nine games; Jaromir Jagr was held pointless in six of 10 games; Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk each scored just two goals in 10 games; and even Sid the Kid scored only once in 10 games against the West.
The West is a better conference with stronger, more playoff-ready teams. So, in two months, don't be surprised if all signs point West in the hunt for hockey's Holy Grail.
ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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