The New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators picked the wrong time to make a trip out west.
On a better evaluation, “picked” and “make a trip” don’t tell the full story. More accurately, they were “forced” to “run a gauntlet” through the Pacific Division’s balance of power as the schedule has dictated they face the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and the Phoenix Coyotes – the latter of which, let’s face it, doesn’t exactly represent a Sunday stroll down Main Street – during a portion of the schedule in which match-ups in the Pacific Time Zone have been nearly as sacrificial as they have been competitive.
Though they beat the Kings, the Rangers were outscored 20-6 in their travels through California and Arizona. The Ottawa Senators, a team projected as being capable of battling for a divisional title, picked up three points out of eight without winning in regulation.
Through 46 games, the Western Conference is 31-11-4 against the Eastern Conference – not that Darryl Sutter is taking credit for wins by divisional rivals.
“We’re our own dimension here. We lost to the Rangers. So what are we?” he asked.
Well, coach, you’re 3-2-0. It’s a winning record, though a modest one. There’s company in the Kings’ court, as 13 of the 14 Western Conference teams have at least a .500 winning percentage against eastern clubs thus far. Only the Edmonton Oilers, at 1-3-1 against the east, have won fewer than half of their games against teams based in the Eastern Time Zone.
“I know that talking to guys who come from the east, it’s almost two different leagues,” Drew Doughty said before emphasizing the widely held narrative when the two conferences are compared.
“The way they play in the east is run-and-gun, a lot of speed, a lot more risk they take offensively, which causes more goals against defensively. The west is more hitting, more systematic, more defensive.”
It’s the type of hockey that one would assume would win championships, and when observing the participants in the last three Stanley Cup Finals, only one team, the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils, ranked outside of the top three teams in regular season goals against. The Boston Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and took the Chicago Blackhawks to six games in 2013, are known for an aggressive, defensive-minded and physical game that stands in contrast to the general styles of Eastern Conference teams as described by Doughty.
The tactical differences were noted by Robyn Regehr, who spent 11 on-ice seasons in Calgary before switching conferences prior to the 2011-12 season.
“I was playing there in Buffalo for a year and a half I saw that it’s more that there was a swarm defense, kind of in your own zone where it wasn’t man-on-man, but it was more just getting all five guys in the corner, and get as many guys there, get the puck back as quick as possible, go,” Regehr said.
How did this evolve? When did the branch in the styles of play and the balance of power occur? How much did the dynastic presences of the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars 10-to-15 years ago affect the way Western Conference teams were built?
It does appear that dominant Western Conference teams have been able to sustain their success over longer periods of time. The Avalanche averaged 102.4 points per season from 1995 to 2004. The Red Wings averaged 108.3 points per season over that span, which included an NHL-record 62 wins in 1995-96. From 1996 to 2007, the Stars averaged 105.2 points per season.
New Jersey, the only eastern team to make more than two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1994-95 (Detroit was the only Western Conference team to do so), averaged 103.8 points per season between 1996 and 2010. Other successful eastern teams had interruptions in their success. Pittsburgh picked first overall in 2003 and 2005 amidst four consecutive on-ice seasons of missing the playoffs. Philadelphia has been very competitive over that span but was unable to win a title. Boston’s heightened success has come only recently.
Could it be that the presence of Detroit, Dallas and Colorado encouraged an added responsibility amongst Western Conference teams to exercise patience in drafting, developing and retaining core players in an effort to sustain their success over longer periods of time?
Does the conference-heavy schedule help prepare western teams for the playoff grind?
“I think both conferences are competitive, but I think over the last couple years, I think the west is probably a little bit more challenging…and playing those teams a lot, it brings up the competition, and that’s probably helping for when teams play against the east,” Regehr said.
The effect of franchise stability, while helpful, doesn’t appear to have a profound effect on success. The New York Rangers last changed hands in 1926; they’ve won one Stanley Cup since 1940. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ ownership group, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, was founded in 1931 as Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. They haven’t won a Cup since 1967.
Perhaps anecdotally, the Phoenix Coyotes had their business operations taken over by the NHL in the 2008-09 season, yet retained successful hockey operations that helped produce 107, 99 and 97 points in consecutive seasons from 2009-12 and reached the 2012 Western Conference Final.
They’re part of an ultra-competitive division comprised by entities in the hockey landscape that include an original expansion team, a 1991 expansion team and a 1993 expansion team – all based in the Golden State.
The Senators and Rangers learned quickly what Pacific Division and Western Conference hockey fans have accepted for quite some time: every single game “out west” will feature incredibly tight and talented competition.
“It affects us because you either have to win games or fall behind the competition,” Regehr said. “You’ve got to demand the most out of yourself and your teammates all the time. There is no real easy team or easy game anymore. I think it’s a lot of fun to have three good teams now in California. It makes for great games, and not only the geographical rival of being close, but also the fact that you’re battling for very important points, whether it’s a division title or playoff seeding, or things like that. It’s very important.”
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