Changing dynamics in the Eastern Conference (and proof that it is very different from the West)

A few days ago, we discussed some very telling numbers that justified widely-held beliefs that the Western Conference remains superior to the Eastern Conference as a whole.

Ultimately, these discussions get a little tedious after a while, though. Hand wringing over playing in a tougher conference or division solves little (although, seriously, the NFC West is pretty pathetic). Instead, it’s wiser to simply make the best of the situation and opportunities you see in front of you.

Such talk also clouds what might be a more interesting development out East: a clear hierarchy is developing in the NHL’s weaker conference. Let me break the 15 teams into four “classes” to illuminate the point for you.

Upper class (the puffy-chested)

Pittsburgh Penguins (40 points.), Washington Capitals (39 pts.), Philadelphia Flyers (38 pts.) and Montreal Canadiens (36 pts.)

There is little doubt that the Western Conference features a higher level of overall competition, with even its low-end teams such as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers showing enough gumption to put up a good fight every now and then. That being said, it’s still quite illuminating that after the Detroit Red Wings (37 pts. in four less games played than the Penguins and Capitals), the highest ranking team in the West is the Dallas Stars (36 pts.).

While I’m still a bit unsure about the Habs’ status as a truly elite team, there is a tangible divide between the four Eastern teams who would own at least one round of home ice advantage if the playoffs began today and the rest of the pack. The Penguins, Capitals and Flyers all boast deep lineups that could reasonably give any Western contender serious pause.

Perhaps Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are feasting on a middle-of-the-pack Rangers team and two awful ones in Long Island and New Jersey, but those two squads look like they’ll actually make the Capitals fight for the top seed after Washington cruised last season.

Upper middle class (the risers)

Tampa Bay Lightning (33 pts.), Atlanta Thrashers (33 pts.), NY Rangers (33 pts.) and Boston Bruins (31 pts.)

The next strain of teams aren’t at the powerhouse level, but aside from the Rangers, seem poised to become dangerous teams in the future as well as the present. Tampa Bay and Atlanta seem ahead of their time in some ways because they’re stocked with young talent and bold-thinking front offices; Boston is holding strong despite troublesome injuries, a relatively small amount of games played and can look to a light at the end of the future for various reasons, including the potential of Tyler Seguin.

Last season, the Flyers battled the Rangers on the last day of the season for the eighth spot in what looked like a bottom-poor East. This time around, there seems to be a profound difference between the top eight and the bottom seven. At least at this point in the season.

Lower middle class (stuck)

Ottawa Senators (26 pts.), Carolina Hurricanes (25 pts.), Buffalo Sabres (25 pts.), Toronto Maple Leafs (24 pts.) and Florida Panthers (22 pts.)

Again, this cluster of team seems like they share a similar outlook: glum, if not grim. How is it possible not to look at the Senators, Hurricanes and Sabres without a sense of waste? All three teams could very well put together winning streaks, but aren’t likely to be saved by some miracle trade. Each team has been in the playoffs with frequency but cannot seem to make it a consistent, comfortable process.

The Leafs and Panthers face slightly darker fates, even if their similar paths (inconsistent front office leadership, haven’t made the playoffs since at least the pre-lockout seasons, precious few marquee scorers) are viewed with comically disproportionate interest in their respective markets.

Lower class (the impoverished)

New Jersey Devils (18 pts.) and New York Islanders (15 pts.)

Which team is in a uglier situation?

The Devils play in a new building in Newark of all places, have been one of the league’s model franchises since the mid-90s and now find themselves with a teeming swamp of a disappointing season.

The Isles are desperate for a new building, have rarely sniffed relevance since the days of Mike Bossy and even suffer self-inflicted blows when dealing with the few media people interested in covering their games.

In the end, they are the poorest of the poor both in the East and in the entire league.


So, after looking over the near-capitalistic East, the West seems like it would please Karl Marx by comparison.

  • The top-ranked Penguins (40 pts) best the bottom-ranked Islanders (15 pts) by a staggering 25 points in the East. Conversely, in the West, the Red Wings (37) only hold a 13-point advantage over 15th-place Calgary (24).
  • There really is no reason to call the teams ranked ninth or lower in the East “bubble teams” right now since they trail Boston by at least five points. Meanwhile, in the West, the 7-10 teams (Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators) are all locked up at 30 points and can only be separated by tie-breakers. The 11th and 12th ranked teams (Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks) are breathing down everyone’s neck at 29. In other words, there aren’t many off-nights in the West because just about every one is a threat. (Mike Chen takes on the “mega logjam” in the West at From the Rink.)

Ultimately, I think it would be interesting if the two conferences maintain these quasi-political parallels. Do you enjoy sports more when brutal parity wears down great teams until they are merely good or would you rather watch a few predators exploit weaker prey? If these trends hold true, the West provides the former while the East currently projects the latter.

And the best part is that if these trends continue, next summer could bear the sweetest fruit: an answer regarding which situation produces the fittest contender in the Stanley Cup finals.

NHL On NBCSN: Blues look to continue playoff push against Blackhawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Sunday night when the St. Louis Blues take on the Chicago Blackhawks. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. You can catch all of the action on NBCSN or on our Live Stream.

The St. Louis Blues are one of the many teams in the middle of the free-for-all playoff race that is the Western Conference and are in desperate need of wins. They got a huge one on Saturday night by defeating the New York Rangers in overtime, and now they need to come back 24 hours later and try to get another one when they visit the Chicago Blackhawks.

The only downside to Saturday’s win is that star winger Vladimir Tarasenko left the game due to an injury.

His status for Sunday is uncertain at this point, but it would obviously be a pretty significant blow to the Blues’ lineup if he is unable to go.

He is the team’s leading goal-scorer (27) and is second in total points with 57, trailing only the 59 that Brayden Schenn has.

The Blues enter the day three points out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference and have a chance to pick up a couple of more points in that race if they can knock off a Blackhawks team that is, if we are being completely honest, going in the tank down the stretch.

After losing to Buffalo on Saturday the Blackhawks are just 8-18-2 in their past 28 games.

This is one of three games that the Blues have remaining with the Blackhawks down the stretch.

St. Louis has been through a pretty tumultuous couple of weeks recently. It is a stretch that included a pretty significant collapse in the standings, a major trade (Paul Stastny), and some significant injuries. But they are still alive in the playoff race, barely, thanks to wins in three of their past four games.

They desperately need another one on Sunday night.


Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Shutouts for three, Dubnyk gets win No. 200

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Players of the Night:

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins, Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils and Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs: Where do we begin on the night of the shutout? Rask didn’t have a particularly busy night making 23 saves, but when you’re facing names like Kucherov and Stamkos, it’s always dangerous. Still, Rask kept rolling along. He is 27-3-2 in his past 32 starts. That’s just silly. … Kinkaid, meanwhile stopped 38 — including 19 in the first period — in a 3-0 win against the Kings for his fourth career shutout. … No Frederik Andersen for Toronto? No problem. McElhinney stepped in and pitched a 33-save performance as the Leafs down the Montreal Canadiens 4-0.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: The Blues defenseman scored twice in regulation and then assisted on Brayden Schenn‘s overtime winner to cap off a three-point night.

Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild: While he didn’t get a shutout, Dubnyk did stop 30 of 31 en route to his 200th career NHL win. The win was also important for the Wild, who moved to within five points of the Winnipeg Jets for second place in the Central Division, and moved five points ahead of the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche for third place.

Highlights of the Night:

Filthy pass:

First-goal celebrations are always the best:

Voracek with a slick move in front:

Save of the year candidate:

Factoids of the Night:

Home is where the wins are:

A legend passes a legend:

Believe in McJesus:

Scary Scenes of the Night:


Sabres 5, Blackhawks 3

Oilers 4, Panthers 2

Devils 3, Kings 0

Maple Leafs 4, Canadiens 0

Bruins 3, Lightning 0

Flyers 4, Hurricanes 2

Blue Jackets 2, Senators 1

Blue 4, Rangers 3 (OT)

Wild 3, Coyotes 1

Sharks 5, Canucks 3

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Senators’ Ryan Dzingel drilled in the head with a puck (video)

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We already saw one lacerated leg, and now we have a one-timer drilling a player in the back of the helmet.

Saturday night hasn’t been so kind.

Ottawa Senators forward Ryan Dzingel was forced to leave the game after some friendly fire against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 2-1 loss.

Dzingel was drilled in the back of the head from teammate Mike Hoffman‘s one-timer of the back of his helmet around the mid-way point of the third period.

Dzingel remained down for a time but was able to skate off the ice with some assistance from Ottawa’s trainers.

He did not return to the game.

If you watch this closely, you will see Dzingel’s No. 8 on the back of his helmet fly off after contact with the puck.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Bruins’ David Backes suffers leg laceration in collision (video)


A scary scene unfolded in the first period between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the visiting Boston Bruins on Saturday night.

David Backes and Yanni Gourde came together in the Lightning crease, with Gourde’s skate appearing to cut Backes on the outside of his right leg.

Backes was able to make his way to the Bruins bench on his own, but he was clutching the back of his leg before getting some help down the tunnel.

Backes did not return to the game.

The Bruins said that Backes suffered a laceration above his right knee, which required several stitches to close.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck