As January plods along, a simple glance at the at the conference standings shows the competiveness of the Western Conference compared to that of the East. Consider that the Bruins, currently the No. 5 seed in the East, would be out of the playoffs if they played in the West, joining last year's Stanley Cup finalists, the Detroit Red Wings. Through last weekend, in head-to-head matchups between Eastern and Western teams this season, the West has won 70 in regulation and 16 more in overtime or shootouts, compared to the East's marks of 47 wins in regulation and 17 in overtime. In those games, the West has outscored the East by a total of 44 goals and outshot them by 155 shots.
With such dominance from the West, what lessons can we take from that come playoff time? To get to those answers, let's further break down the disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences to see who has the best shot at reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
While the worst team in the NHL, the Carolina Hurricanes, has an address on the East Coast, even the better teams in the Eastern Conference have trouble with the top Western teams: of the 42 East-West games between the top eight teams from each Conference, the West has won 29, the East just 13.
This is not to say that the Eastern Conference is without elite teams. The New Jersey Devils may be the most complete team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals have the most explosive offense, the Buffalo Sabres have the best goaltender and the Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions. But of the three teams that can lay claim to being at the head of the class at the halfway point of the season, two reside in the West, with the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks joining New Jersey.
Of course, this means very little in terms of predicting playoff results. You see, being in a strong conference is more of a curse than a blessing. For years, the Devils were the only Eastern heavyweight in a league whose balance of power tipped towards the Pacific Ocean, and they benefited by reaching four Stanley Cup finals in nine years, winning three of them. Consider that the bottom three seeds in the West, for now, are the Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes. Vancouver has the leading scorer in the NHL and one of its top goaltenders, the Kings are the new up-and-coming team loaded with young talent, and the Coyotes have one of the league's best defenses (2.36 goals against per game). Meanwhile, the top three seeds in the East would draw the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, none of which makes for a fearsome opponent, though the Flyers have been heating up.
With that in mind, the strength of the Blackhawks is truly admirable. Puck Prospectus establishes team strength ratings based on teams' win-loss records, goal differentials and schedule difficulty. These ratings are then used to predict each team's future success. The rest of the season, including the playoffs, was simulated 5,000 times based on these ratings.
Stanley Cup Finals Odds
Despite facing tougher competition in the West, based on Puck Prospectus' team rankings, Chicago is the most likely team to make it to the finals, with a 31 percent chance of getting there. Facing easier paths, the Devils and Capitals are second and third, at 29 percent and 21 percent. The defending champion Penguins, meanwhile, weigh in with a mere 10 percent chance.
Ultimately, you have to beat the other conference's top team to win the Cup and the two favorites both reside in the West. Both the Blackhawks and the Sharks would be favored in a head-to-head matchup with any Eastern team, while the Canucks (predicted to pass over the Avalanche in our projections) and Flames would be underdogs to the Devils and Capitals, but favorites against the Penguins or Sabres.
While the odds indicate likely outcomes, the NHL has achieved so much parity that virtually any team can compete with any other on a given night, and while the West has had a better record against teams from the East every season since the lockout, Eastern teams claimed two of those Stanley Cups. But right now, the center of power in the NHL is in the West, and the odds say that the Chicago Blackhawks are the team to beat.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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