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So far this year, west is best

Kicking serious eastern butt in conference showdowns

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The NHL Eastern Conference boasts five Original Six teams, Sidney Crosby, the NHL headquarters, Madison Square Garden, the capitals of two countries, Alex Ovechkin, the last two Norris Trophy winners and the largest television market.

What the Eastern Conference doesn't have are winning teams, mostly because Western Conference teams are dominating them on a nightly basis, going 31-11-4 in head-to-head meetings.

"It's a cyclical thing... but I do believe the West has an edge now," said Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke. "And I would have said that last season when I was in Toronto. I told our staff that. We would talk about acquiring a player in a trade, and we would say he doesn't skate well enough to play in the West, but he could play in the East."

Burke said the difference between the two conferences isn't dramatic.

"But it is noticeable in the speed of the game," Burke said, "and I could be alone on this, and I'm sure some angry Eastern GMs will respond."

The Western Conference has 14 teams, and on Thursday morning 10 had winning records and one was at .500. Of the 16 Eastern Conference teams, six teams had winning records. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the only winning team in the Metropolitan Division.

"The West has been better than the East for a while, so it is more than cyclical now," said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire. "Most defences are deep and skilled in the West."

Going into Thursday's games, Western teams were scoring an average of 3.03 goals a game, while surrendering 2.70. The Eastern teams were scoring 2.54 goals per game and giving up 2.82.

Goaltending might also be an factor. The Western Conference has more heralded goalies including Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings), Antti Niemi (San Jose Sharks), Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators), Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks) and Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks).

"I don't think there is any difference between the top teams in the East and the top teams in the West," said Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. "But last year I thought there was more depth in the number of good teams in the West."

Holland has a unique perspective because his franchise, along with the Columbus Blue Jackets, moved from the West to the East this season under realignment. The Winnipeg Jets moved the other way.

"I thought there was more goals in the East last season," Holland said. "Is that because there are better offensive players in the East or because there are more teams in the West committed to playing playoff hockey, 2-1 hockey?"

Holland said the "sampling size is too small" to know what will happen this season, but he thought it was particularly hard last season to make the playoffs in the West because teams in the sixth through 10 places were exceptional.

"Columbus had the best record in the second half of the season, and (the Blue Jackets) didn't make the playoffs," Holland said.

Holland said for the past "six to eight years" you needed to be able to play low-scoring, tight-checking hockey to make the playoffs in the West.

"You aren't winning a lot of 6-5 games in the West," Holland said.

Five of the top six players in the scoring race are from the Eastern Conference. But five Western Conference teams are among the top seven teams giving up the fewest shots on goal.

"I think the West is a little bigger and a little more mobile and I think the East probably has better execution on special teams and I've never looked at stats to back that up," Burke said. "It's just my sense."

The West's dominance has been helped by the strong starts by the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. Considering that the Avalanche finished 29th overall last season, their early play has been one of the league's biggest surprises.

"Dallas did a lot in the off-season," said Flames general manager Jay Feaster. "Everybody keeps getting better out here. I don't know why the West has been better. All I know is that it is a battle every night out here in the West."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 C9

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