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.

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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.

How going back to junior helped Mathew Barzal become a dominant player

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Every hockey player wants to get to the NHL as fast as possible, but sometimes spending an extra year in junior or in the minors can make a huge difference.

Mathew Barzal played two games with the New York Islanders at the beginning of last season before being sent back to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. There’s no doubt that Barzal would’ve wanted to spend the year in the NHL like fellow rookie Anthony Beauvillier did, but it didn’t end up happening.

Barzal went back to Seattle with the right attitude. He ended up working on his game and having a huge year for the Thunderbirds, his country and himself. He finished his junior campaign with 10 goals and 79 points in only 41 games. Barzal was an influential part of his team’s first ever WHL Championship, as he accumulated seven goals and 25 points in 16 playoff games. He also added two assists in three games at the 2017 Memorial Cup (Seattle went 0-3 in the tournament).

The Isles forward also served as an assistant captain for Team Canada at last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. It was his second straight season on Canada’s roster. In his first year, he had three points in five games. Last year, he had an impressive eight points in seven tournament games. Unfortunately for Canada, they lost in the gold medal game to Team USA.

“I think (going back to junior) helped,” Barzal told PHT earlier this week. “I think it just let me play my game. I got to play lots of minutes, make a deep playoff run and win a championship. I had a good coach there in Seattle (Steve Konowalchuk) that kept me honest as a 19-year-old. I went to the World Juniors, I got a lot of good experience playing in big games. I think it was just a good development year.”

Through 46 games this season, the rookie has already amassed 16 goals and an impressive 47 points. We’ll never know if he would’ve been able to accomplish that had he not gone back to the WHL last season, but it certainly didn’t hinder his development.

“(Barzal’s) game has skyrocketed since late in October last year when he went back to junior,” head coach Doug Weight said. “He worked on the things he needed to work on. It’s refreshing to see when you have that tough meeting and you challenge him in those things and the things you’re supposed to say as a coach and a friend. He went back and he worked on it and it showed in his game in Seattle.

“He’s had a lot thrown at him and he’s just been terrific.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Isles have Beauvillier, who was developed in a different way. Barzal (15th overall) and Beauvillier (28th overall) were both selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft. Instead of going back to junior, Beauvillier stuck around in the NHL. He finished last season with a modest nine goals and 24 points in 66 games. This year, he seems to have hit a wall while Barzal has been flat-out dominant.

During the Islanders’ bye week earlier this month, they assigned Beauvillier to the minors where he played three games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (he scored two goals). The 20-year-old has eight goals and four assists in 35 games this season.

Unlike Barzal, Beauvillier just seems to be holding on for dear life in the NHL right now. That doesn’t mean he won’t develop into a solid player, but going back to junior and dominating for a year might have been better for his development (yes, hindsight is 20/20).

Most of the talk around the Islanders organization has been about John Tavares potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. Losing their captain would be devastating, but the fact that they’ve helped develop Barzal into a dominant player would lessen the blow if Tavares decides to leave.

Of course if he sticks around, the Islanders would have a formidable one-two punch down the middle for years to come.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a double header on Thursday night. In the early game, the New York Rangers host the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

These two teams will be going head-to-head for the first time since they met in the 2018 Winter Classic which the Rangers won 3-2 in overtime.

The Sabres are back in action after a six-day break. They went into their bye week with a 3-1 win over Columbus, but they had dropped their previous five games.

The first half of the season couldn’t have gone much worse for Buffalo. Only the Arizona Coyotes have accumulated less points (28) than the Sabres’ 31.

Even though their playoff dreams are all but crushed, they’ll still have to find motivation to play out the rest of the season. The wins and losses might not matter at this point, but showing professional pride always does.

“I don’t think you ever lose your motivation,” defenseman Marco Scandella said, per The Buffalo News. “I do what I love. I can’t speak for everyone in this room, but I definitely know that for myself it’s always exciting to play hockey. I’m always motivated. I think what getting a break does for you just gives you time to heal. You get to get away from it for a bit so when you come back you’re just that much more hungry and excited about it.”

As for the Rangers, they were able to put their three-game losing streak to bed with a big 5-1 win over the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night. New York gave up the first goal in that game, but they managed to score five unanswered goals. Forward Rick Nash busted out of his 12-game goalless slump with a two-goal performance.

“It was obviously a huge difference to play in goal,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist told The New York Post after the win. “It’s funny how it works. We play our best defensive game in a very long time and we score five goals. I don’t remember the last time we scored five goals.”

As strange as this season has been for the Rangers, they still find themselves in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s still a lot of games that need to be played, but they’re right in the thick of things in the East.

You’d have to think that a win over Buffalo is a must for a team currently in New York’s position.

In the late game, the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to Los Angeles to take on the Kings at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Pens saw their four-game winning streak come to an end in last night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks. Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring in the first period, but Pittsburgh watched as Anaheim scored four consecutive goals in the middle frame.

“We did some good things, we just made some big mistakes in the second period,” Sidney Crosby said, per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Give up that many goals and that many breakaways in a short period of time, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”

Even though the Penguins have four wins in their last five games, they can’t afford to get complacent. They only have a one point lead on the New York Islanders (the Isles have a game in hand) for the last Wild Card spot.

Things won’t get any easier for them, as the team announced that they’ll be without Matt Murray for an indefinite period of time after the passing of his father. They’ll be relying on Tristan Jarry until Murray is able to return.

For the Kings, getting out of their recent funk is a priority. They dropped the two games prior to their bye week and they’ve lost two more decisions since coming back. To make matters worse, three of those four losses have come against Pacific Division rivals (Flames, Ducks, Sharks).

They’re still sitting a playoff spot, but it’s probably not the one they want to be in. The Kings are in the final Wild Card spot in the West. They have the same number of points as Minnesota (53) who is behind them, but Los Angeles has two games in hand. On a positive note, they’re only one point behind the Sharks and Flames for second and third in the division.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Weather forces AHL’s Charlotte Checkers to play game in empty arena (Video)

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The Director of Finance/Controller filled in as the public address announcer. The Chief Operating Officer acted as the arena DJ. Ticket sales staff? They worked as the ice crew. A corporate salesperson ran the video board. The camerawoman regularly handles merchandise. Even the mascot, Chubby, was played by a corporate servicing specialist.

Wednesday night wasn’t your typical American Hockey League game at Bojangles’ Coliseum for the Charlotte Checkers. Inclement weather in the area forced the team to close the game to the public. But since the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and referees were already in town, and it would have been difficult to get Bridgeport back to Charlotte for a makeup, it was game on.

So in front of a crowd of, well, Checkers employees doubling as game operations staff, the teams played and the home side came out on top 4-3, thanks to a three-goal third period.

Here’s what a goal by the home team sounded like:

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The lack of a crowd didn’t stop the Checkers from acting like it was a normal game day. The mascot kept working and even “Cotton-Eyed Joe” was played to rev up the…players, I guess? It also wouldn’t have been a game night without the “Kiss Cam.”

Tonight was fun. Thanks for following along and staying safe. #BehindClosedDoors2

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This wasn’t the first time the team has played a game that was closed to the public. Back in 2016 Winter Storm Jonas caused a number of sporting events to be postponed, but not for the Checkers, who had their staff run the game.

The Checkers are off the next two days as they prepare to face the Rochester Americans in a two-game set this weekend. The weather in Charlotte will be much better over the next couple of days, which means the Checkers’ staff will be able to get back to their regular jobs.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Domingue almost quit hockey; Should Wings trade Howard?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Eric Lindros talks jersey retirement and about the buzz in Philadelphia now that the Eagles are in the NFC title game. (Philly.com)

• It will be awfully hard for the Blackhawks to make the playoffs if Corey Crawford misses the rest of the year. (Chicago Tribune)

• Willie O’Ree became the first black hockey player to play in the NHL 60 years ago this week. Not many people have had a greater impact on the game. (NHL.com)

• There’s a few reasons why Sean Couturier is having a great season for the Flyers. (Broad Street Hockey)

• The Detroit Red Wings should be sellers at the deadline and one of the guys they should look to trade is goalie Jimmy Howard. (Detroit News)

• It sure looks like hockey has become fun again for Nathan MacKinnon. (Denver Post)

• Many expected the Rangers would shift to a younger lineup after parting ways with Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan, but that hasn’t been the case. (New York Post)

• Washington Wizards forward Mike Scott isn’t a hockey fan, but he has a pretty large collection of NHL jerseys. (Washington Post)

• Lightning goalie Louis Domingue admitted that he almost quit hockey when he was struggling with the Coyotes earlier this season. (Raw Charge)

• The U.S. Women’s National Team won a pair of exhibition games against the best players from the NWHL. (Victory Press)

• The ECHL has already announced their new 2019 All-Star format, and it’s a little odd. (Scottywazz.com)

• A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993. If hockey fans want that streak to come to an end this year, they’ll probably have to root for the Winnipeg Jets. (Spector’s Hockey)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.