Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) pokes the puck off the stick of Edmonton Oilers' Taylor Hall (4) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Photograph by: (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar), Canada.com
Fans of the Senators, Canadiens and Maple Leafs grumbled over at least one aspect of the revamped National Hockey League divisions and conferences.
With 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference, the imbalance would make competition for playoff berths more challenging for eastern teams, considering there would still be just eight qualifiers from each conference.
The scenario will be interesting to watch as the season progresses and half the eastern teams fall by the wayside, but, at this early stage, the western clubs have been so superior to their eastern brethren that a team like the Ottawa Senators — finally having completed a four-game western swing — has to be thrilled simply to return to games against its own conference.
With an imbalanced schedule — four or five games versus divisional teams, three versus the other division in the same conference and just two each against teams from the other conference — at least there is an opportunity to feast on eastern bottom feeders. (The key being, of course, not to be among the bottom feeders).
The bottom feeders aren’t hard to identify.
Consider the win-loss-overtime records of the worst four teams in the East: the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres. Through Monday’s games, these four had combined for two wins, 18 regulation losses and four more defeats in extra time. Two wins in 24 games.
That is food for every team above these four in the conference standings.
Already, four teams in the east have hit negative double digits in goals for versus goals against: Florida (-11), New Jersey (-10), the Rangers (-16) and Buffalo (-11). In the west, only the beleaguered Edmonton Oilers, -10, have hit double figures in the minus category of goals.
How dominant has the west been in cross-conference play?
Before Tuesday night, the west held a 28-7-3 advantage in games versus eastern teams. Digest that for a moment. In 38 games, the west has won 28 (a .736 winning percentage) and earned a loser point in three more, thus points from 31 of 38 games.
Flip it over and the east has won just 10 of the 38, with 24 regulation losses and four more defeats in extra time.
These are Men versus Boys kind of numbers, albeit from a small sample size two weeks into the 2013-14 season.
The west already lays claim to more recent championships, having crowned five of the past seven Stanley Cup champions and five of the eight played since the 2005 lockout.
Things could be worse regarding eastern pride. At least the Eastern Conference now has the storied Detroit Red Wings franchise raising the bar on excellence (and almost certainly taking up a playoff spot occupied by a long-standing eastern tenant).
If anything, the east should become stronger than it has been in recent seasons with the addition of Detroit and the up-and-coming Columbus Blue Jackets, while the Winnipeg Jets (16th overall in Tuesday’s standings) moved to the west.
Depending on one’s perspective as an impartial observer or partisan, that was either a steal of a trade or a rude addition. Expect some griping until the NHL rebalances the conferences, ideally with an alignment that includes the Quebec Nordiques.
Prior to Tuesday’s games, the west had eight teams with eight or more points in the standings. The east had three: Toronto, Pittsburgh and the newly relocated Red Wings.
Slotting the 30 NHL clubs by points, nine of the top 12 NHL teams were from the west, three from the east.
You get the picture.
The east doesn’t truly escape the tough western competition until the early playoff rounds, when east meets east while hoping western opponents pummel each other to provide hope for eastern regions in the Cup final.
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