West flexing muscles with Cups, interleague play … and East wild cards?

Detroit and Columbus made the playoffs in their first year in the Eastern Conference.

Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

When the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on Wednesday with the Columbus Blue Jackets visiting Metropolitan Division champion Pittsburgh, it would be considered a big upset if Columbus, which has never won a playoff game, let alone a series, were to advance.

An even bigger upset would be if the Detroit Red Wings knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, the defending Eastern Conference champions who finished with the best record in the NHL during the regular season.

But if one or both of those Eastern Conference wild card teams were to prevail, would it really represent such an upset?

Let’s think about that in a different context. Under the NHL’s realignment plan that took effect this season, both Detroit and Columbus moved to the East from the Western Conference while Winnipeg (formerly Atlanta) moved East to West. Detroit and Columbus qualified, Winnipeg did not.

In microcosm, this has been the story of the NHL for the past seven seasons. During that span, five of the last seven winners of the Stanley Cup have come from the West: Anaheim (’07), Detroit (’08), Chicago (’10 and ’13) and Los Angeles (’12). In both cases when an Eastern team won the Cup during that span, Pittsburgh in ’09 and Boston in ’11, they required seven games to do so.

Last season, it was much harder to judge the West’s relative strength against the East. In the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule, a team from the conferences did not meet until Chicago defeated Boston in the Stanley Cup finals in six games.

This season, under the aforementioned realignment plan that also ushered in a more balanced schedule matrix, yielded results that only confirm that the trend has continued.

The 14 Western teams went 246-150-52 against the East for an average of 1.21 points per game, almost 18 percent higher than the East’s average of 1.03 against the West. By earning 1.21 out of every two points, Western teams had a points percentage of .605.

In this first season in the East, the Red Wings have remained essentially a Western team at heart and that helped them to qualify. While Ottawa, one place behind Detroit in the Atlantic Division, had one more point against Eastern teams than Detroit did, 63-62, Detroit, more adept against the West, went 13-10-5 against its old conference to the Senators’ 10-13-5. 

2013-14 was not even a case of top Western teams beating up on lowly Eastern teams, even though four of the league’s top five overall records came from the West. Only one Western team, Dallas – which, coincidentally enough, finished as the West’s second wild card — had a losing record (13-17-2) against the East. Even Edmonton, with the league’s third-worst overall record, went 14-14-4 against the East.

Meanwhile, in the East, six of 16 teams – Florida, Buffalo, Ottawa, New Jersey, Carolina and the New York Islanders — posted losing records against the West. Overall, Eastern teams went 202-188-58 against the West (overtime and shootout victories are the reason why the East and West aggregate records are not the inverse of each of other).

Maybe the most telling number is the West’s record against the East in regulation (and vice versa). The West went 188-150 against the East in regulation (or 150-188 for the East). That means on average, a Western team was three games over .500 in regulation against an Eastern counterpart.

STANLEY CUP CHASE

At a press conference on Monday concerning the dismissal of Barry Trotz, who had been the only coach in Nashville’s 15-season history, Predators general manager David Poile answered a question about whether he expects his team to make the playoffs next season. The Predators have missed two straight postseasons after qualifying in seven out of eight and advancing to the second round in 2011 and 2012.

Poile did not sugarcoat the difficulty of the task.

"I think we have to be realistic and set expectations," he said. "…Our conference has got some high-end teams — St. Louis, Chicago, Anaheim, Colorado coming on. I think we’re capable of making the playoffs. I want to set expectations correct for our new coach, for our players, for our fans, for the media. I want to make the playoffs so that’s being one of the top eight teams in our conference. Period…. Until we get to there, I’m not looking past that because that’s our first step and we’ve got to get there."

It’s hard to come up with the exact reasons as to why the swell in competition out West has occurred. Perhaps it has something to do with the Red Wings setting the standard for more than two decades, winning the Cup four times since 1997 and having raised the bar for every team that has wanted to compete with them.

Generally, Western teams employ a faster, tighter-checking style of play than Eastern teams do. On Tuesday, Boston coach Claude Julien spoke of "closing the gap" on the Red Wings’ speed and taking away their time and space, according to Comcast SportsNet New England’s Joe Haggerty. When it comes to defense, Elliotte Friedman of the CBC provided an anecdote in December in which the Stars’ Shawn Horcoff and Tyler Seguin, the latter a first-year transplant from the East, joked that they could not remember the last time they saw a 2-on-1 break in the West. That goes to coaching.

For now, the greater preponderance of skill and style appears to be in the West. Does that mean that Columbus and Detroit will win?

Hardly. But if Detroit has any chance of beating Boston, it’s because of the speed of players like Darren Helm and the skill of ones like Gustav Nyquist (28 goals in 57 games) and because of the coaching of Mike Babcock, who boasts three finals appearances and a Stanley Cup ring.

In Columbus, president John Davidson is showing he is one of the better team builders in the NHL, having largely assembled the St. Louis roster that has put together 100-point seasons in two of the past three seasons (and likely would have made it three in a row were it not for the shortened ’12-’13 season) before moving on in October 2012.

To an extent, many of the teams in the West remain a mystery to hockey fans in the East. Four of the 14 teams play in Canada. Other markets like Nashville are small and obscure. Eastern fans are often not awake for great games between the likes of Los Angeles and San Jose, who will have one of the most competitive first-round playoff matchups of 2014.

So maybe fans in the East shouldn’t be surprised if they wake up in the Cup final and see another Western team carrying the play. Or maybe they shouldn’t be surprised if the Penguins go down in the first round.