By Steve Silverman
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When it comes to winning championships, the Western Conference has ruled the National Hockey League for a while.
Except for one instance, that’s the way it has been since 2010, and the perception around the league has been, come the Stanley Cup Final, the East just can’t compete.
With the Chicago Blackhawks winning three Cups since 2010 and the Los Angeles Kings winning two, that perception makes sense. The only team to break that Western Conference stranglehold was the Boston Bruins in 2011, when they defeated the Vancouver Canucks to win their first title in 39 years.
But the situation has changed quite a bit this season. The Blackhawks and Kings are still strong teams, but many of the rest of the Western teams have fallen down the other side of the mountain. If Chicago or L.A. don’t represent the conference in the Final in late June, the only other reasonable alternatives appear to be Dallas and Anaheim, but both of those teams require a huge leap of faith.
The Stars are the team on the rise with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg, but they don’t have enough defense to last through three rounds of playoffs, while the Ducks just can’t seem to get over getting stung by the ‘Hawks in last year’s Western finals. That team is scarred by the pain of that defeat, combined with past playoff disappointments.
And don’t talk about the St. Louis Blues or San Jose Sharks, because those teams have never known how to win when the money has been on the table.
The Eastern Conference looks ready to send someone formidable into the fray. The Washington Capitals have put their signature and stamp on this season, as they are currently the NHL’s best team. Barry Trotz — he has the look of an evil genius or mad scientist in a Hollywood epic — has proven to be the right man on the bench, and the Capitals are powerful and consistent. That’s the characteristic that has eluded them in the past and why they have failed so many times.
The Capitals will not have any kind of smooth run to the title, however, because they have to go through a gauntlet in the East.
There are at least three teams that are going to be able to give them a run for their money during the postseason, and the team they have to be most concerned about is the New York Rangers.
The Rangers have taken the Caps out of the playoffs in each of their last three playoff seasons, and while they have gotten the best of the Blueshirts in three of four games this season, none of that will matter in the postseason.
Henrik Lundqvist is in the Capitals’ heads, and he will remain there until they can find a way to beat him. If the Caps and Rangers play another seven-game series this spring, you can bet “King Henrik” will have a say in the outcome.
The Tampa Bay Lightning represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final last season, and after a slow start in 2015-16 have come very close to finding their stride. They have a powerful trio in forwards Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, and goalie Ben Bishop.
The Florida Panthers are new to the party and are the biggest surprise in the league, with ancient Jaromir Jagr leading the way, but it really has been young players like Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sasha Barkov and Reilly Smith who have been getting the job done.
Normally, you could expect a young team like this to hit some serious difficulties along the way, but the Panthers have been getting incredible work in net from ageless Roberto Luongo. He is clearly having one of the best seasons of his career, as his 24-13-5 record, 2.17 goals-against average and .928 save percentage attest.
If Luongo stays strong, the Panthers may have the team to break hearts in New York, Washington and Tampa Bay.
If there’s one other team that could join the party, it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins. They are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in, but Sidney Crosby has found his game and new coach Mike Sullivan has lifted the fog that was covering the franchise under former coaches Dan Bylsma (at the end of his tenure) and Mike Johnston (throughout it).
The Penguins have been skating well and playing free-and-easy hockey, and they figure to get better going forward.
The New York Islanders, Detroit Red Wings and Bruins have too many holes to look like real threats at this point, but they have an opportunity to get better prior to the trade deadline if they can make the right moves.
The Eastern Conference has been playing second fiddle in the NHL for years, but the balance of power has evened out. It could be the start of a long run.
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