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Western Conference home to early Cup favourites

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When it comes to conference superiority, the West is the best, and it isn’t even close.

After Wednesday night’s action, not one Eastern Conference team would be in a playoff position if playing in the Western Conference. The East-leading Bruins, with a 14-6-1 record and 29 points, would be ninth in the West, only a few points ahead of the 10th place Vancouver Canucks. It doesn’t get much better for Eastern teams further down the standings either. A total of nine Eastern Conference teams would be worse than all but two Western Conference teams.

The huge discrepancy between the two conferences is striking, and hard to explain. It isn’t like all the powerhouse players are in the West. Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington has Alex Ovechkin, Boston has Zdeno Chara, and Tampa Bay has Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Yet it is the West besting the East by almost every measure.

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The top six teams in goals per game are from the West and four of the top six teams in goals-against per game are from there as well. Eight of the top 12 puck possession teams are from the West, and seven of the eight worst are from the East.

In part the NHL’s new schedule is to blame in the wide gulf in the standings. Now each team plays every opponent at least twice a year, making 30 out-of-conference match-ups. And considering how dominant the Western Conference has been against the East recently (a combined 278-181-81 over the past two seasons, which works out to about 97 points per 82 games), it’s no surprise the West has beat up on the East through the first quarter of the season, banking points with ease.

The sheer number of contenders in the West and the slim difference between teams during the early part of the season has also played a role. The difference between the NHL best Chicago Blackhawks and the eight-seed Colorado Avalanche is a mere two points. Right now, one win is all the separates the best team in the league from one hanging on to the last playoff spot in the West. When half a conference is within striking distance of best in the league it almost isn’t fair when matched up against the also-rans of the East.

But despite the West’s clear superiority, you shouldn’t necessarily expect the Stanley Cup champion to come from the West again. Since the 2005-06 season, the East has failed to post a winning record against the West, yet three of the eight Cup winners during that time were Eastern Conference teams. In part this is because anything can happen in a seven-game series, and the margin of difference between the two teams that make it there is usually quite small. Plus, with all the great teams in the West, many like St. Louis and Los Angeles who are punishing physically, the team that makes it to the Cup final from the West will have gone through a gauntlet.

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It won’t necessarily be true come June, but right now the West is the best.