Star power, less travel will lead Cup back to East
The Stanley Cup resides in Southern California until June. After that, chances are it will head to the Eastern Conference. Yes, the West had the best team during the regular season in Detroit and it has a number of solid Stanley Cup contenders. But here are five good reasons to believe the Cup will runneth over to the East this spring.
What about the West?
If you believe defense wins championships, then you have to figure the eventual Stanley Cup winner will come from the Western Conference. E.J. Hradek makes his case for the West.
• Hradek: Why West will win
Top to bottom, the West is a stronger conference than the East, but the best teams in the East more than handled themselves against their Western foes. While Montreal, the No. 1 seed in the East, struggled against the West, the seeds 2-4 (Pittsburgh, Washington and New Jersey) had a combined 21-7-2 record versus the West. Twelve of those wins were against playoff teams. Meanwhile, the top three seeds in the West (Detroit, San Jose and Minnesota) were a very average 8-8-0 versus the East.
2. Air miles
The Stanley Cup playoffs are the toughest grind in all of sports. It's hard enough having to conceivably play 28 games over an eight-week period. Throw in having to fly cross-country 10 times, and it's downright cruel. For the West teams, that could become a reality. If the Sharks get past Calgary, they might have to then fly (possibly twice) to Minnesota for a series against the Wild, followed by a possible series against Detroit, where they could fly round trip, nearly across the nation, five times if the series goes seven games. All of that before having to face another Eastern Time zone opponent in the Cup finals.
Last season, Anaheim survived the travel by being successful on the ice. The Ducks flew to each Minnesota and Vancouver only once and then Detroit twice before facing Ottawa in the Cup finals. Much more coast-to-coast travel could be involved for the West champion. The eight East teams will never take more than a 90-minute flight, regardless of the opponent, before the Cup finals. And, in some cases (Rangers and Devils), it's a simple bus ride. Don't underestimate the physical impact traveling has on these players. They'll never admit it until their season is over.
3. Hot, hot, hot
Momentum is hard to build, tough to keep and sometimes impossible to stop. Three of the hottest teams heading into the postseason are from the East. Over their last 10 games, Washington, Montreal and the New York Rangers combined to lose only three times in regulation. No one has played better than the Capitals in the last six weeks. Thanks to a lackluster start to the season, the Caps needed to play at an unthinkable level for two months just to make the playoffs. Montreal made an improbable run to win the conference, a huge boost for a team hoping to ride a rookie goalie through the playoffs. And, after hovering around .500 through the end of January, the Rangers have finally solved their chemistry issues, losing only five of their past 29 games in regulation.
4. Turn up the power
With the defense tightened up and scoring chances at a premium in the playoffs, the importance of special teams is heightened. Advantage: Eastern Conference. Colorado, Nashville, Anaheim and Calgary all ranked in the bottom 12 on the man advantage this season, while three East teams (Montreal, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) rank in the top four in power-play efficiency. Montreal can roll out two excellent power-play units as it had five different players score at least 10 goals on the advantage. Anaheim, Dallas, Colorado and Nashville had just three -- total. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, boasts Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up front and Sergei Gonchar on the point for a perfect power-play component. And don't forget about the Capitals, who rank seventh on the power play. No one releases the puck as fast as Alexander Ovechkin, so it's no surprise he led the league with 22 power-play goals.
5. The stars are out
When it comes to winning hockey's prized possession, star power is a necessity. That's why it's no surprise to see the Stanley Cup decorated with names like Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Maurice Richard. This season, the most dominant players reside in the East.
Ovechkin, the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, led the league in goals, game winners and points. Malkin emerged as one of this season's best forwards, finishing second in points and fourth in goals. Crosby, the reigning MVP, is still one of the best players in the game, even at 90 percent. When these players are on the ice, the opponents' sole focus is on keeping the puck out of their net. As far as goalies are concerned, the biggest star is again in the East. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur elevates his game like no other at this time of year. The three-time Cup winner was the only goalie this season to finish in the top six in wins, goals-against average and save percentage.
ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
MORE NHL HEADLINES
- Chara's knee injury to cost him 4-6 weeks
- Senators to honor fallen soldier Saturday
- Neal's hat trick lifts Predators past Blackhawks
- Leafs return to ice day after Ottawa unrest
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
2008 NHL PLAYOFFS
After a wild race to the finish, the NHL playoffs are set. Heading into Wednesday's opening night, Scott Burnside previews the first round:
• No. 1 Montreal vs. No. 8 Boston
• No. 2 Pittsburgh vs. No. 7 Ottawa
• No. 3 Washington vs. No. 6 Philadelphia
• No. 4 New Jersey vs. No. 5 New York Rangers
• Vote: What are your first-round picks?