What is it about the Eastern Conference lately? They always have high scoring, talented, highlight reel teams, but can’t put in the final effort over the Western Conference to go all the way.
The evidence is the gritty, hard-nosed hockey that the Western Conference Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings played to win five of the last six Stanley Cups, with the Tim Thomas backed Boston Bruins narrowly beating the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 as the exception.
The Western Conference seems to have found a way to get through the blood, sweat, tears and grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This year feels the same.
The best team in the NHL in terms of points, the Washington Capitals, nearly let their series with the Philadelphia Flyers slip away. Mainly because of a simple goaltender change. If the Capitals are the dominating team that they are supposed to be, they would have decimated the Flyers as soon as they felt the rocking vending machine start to tip over. But they didn’t. They relied on their hot goaltender, which has to be done from time to time but not for the number one seed to squeak by the number eight seed. Ovechkin firing slap shots won’t get the Capitals the hardest trophy in professional sports to win, as previous years have proven.
On the other side of the bracket, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a much more dominating series against a much better team, the New York Rangers. With two rookie goaltenders, the same can be said for the Tampa Bay Lightning, but their games were much closer than the final result of the series indicates.
On the Western Conference side the teams seem to be playing full on playoff hockey. No holds barred, all the way to the finish seems to be the mantra of all the teams in the West. The Dallas Stars had some difficulty (similar to the Capitals) with the Minnesota Wild but they stayed their course that made them the highest scoring team in the regular season. They scored the goals that they have been scoring all year.They will continue to score goals until one of the other Western Conference team’s defence stops them. Defence and goaltending is the key.
That being said, the hottest team in the West is the San Jose Sharks and if the Stars run into them in the Western Finals they will need more than just a lot of shots on goal. Even now against the St. Louis Blues they will be in tough against a team that just beat the defending Stanley Cup champions and the league’s leading scorer in Patrick Kane.
But back to the Sharks, (who are arguably the best in the West with Pittsburgh being the best in the East so far) and the reasons they are clicking on all levels right now. They are the epitome of why the teams in the West have won more Stanley Cups in recent years. Great goaltending and defense when the game is on the line is the key to advancing. The Sharks didn’t do that the past few seasons but it looks like they have put those demons to rest.
The Kings scored only 11 goals in the series with the Sharks blocking 15 shots in Game 1, 28 in Game 2, 18 in Game 3, 25 in Game 4, and 29 in Game 5. When you see numbers like those going in an upward trend, one can surmise that the team is realizing how to win playoff hockey games. The Sharks are realizing this. One team all the time. No matter what the consequences.
Wayne Gretzky said after losing to the New York Islanders in the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals that he felt his Edmonton Oilers could play another series, but when walking by the winning Islanders dressing room there was no partying or jubilation from them. They were so worn out from the grind of winning the Stanley Cup they could barely stand. The Oilers knew then what it would take to win the Cup and did it the following year.
These are the little things (read: massive things) that make the difference between raising the Stanley Cup banner and raising the Conference Championship banner next year. The remaining Western Conference teams seem to have the sand to make it all the way. Will the Eastern teams step up?