TORONTO – Roberto Luongo was trying to be polite.
Asked recently about why the Vancouver Canucks have such a stellar record against Eastern Conference teams, the goaltender paused before providing an answer. His career has been split almost evenly between the conferences—six seasons with the Islanders/Panthers and now in his fifth in Vancouver—and he clearly didn’t want to offend anyone.
“You do the math, I don’t know what to tell you,” said Luongo. “I can’t answer that for you without being cocky.”
It just so happens the math gives the entire conference a reason to be cocky.
Teams in the West have been downright dominant when playing those from the East this season, racking up a record of 40-19-9 through Tuesday’s games. St. Louis and Los Angeles lead the way with 5-0-0 records and are closely followed by Dallas (5-1-0) and Luongo’s Canucks (5-1-1 heading into Wednesday’s game at Pittsburgh).
There doesn’t appear to be any obvious explanation for the trend. The game is played under the exact same rules—unlike Major League Baseball’s two leagues, for example—and both conferences have talented star players.
Some even dispute the notion that each conference has its own distinct playing style.
“I don’t think there’s a difference, but I know the West has a pretty good record so far this year against the East,” said Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who arrived in Toronto via San Jose and Anaheim. “I don’t know if it’s just chance or if the teams in the West are better.”
It’s been that way for quite some time now.
Since the end of the lockout, teams from the Western Conference are a combined 580-362-116 against those from the East. On top of that, they’ve had a winning record in every one of those seasons.
Interestingly, it hasn’t really carried over to the playoffs—where each conference can lay claim to five of the past 10 Stanley Cup champions.
“I think you always go by the Stanley Cup champions and it’s been even here the last couple years,” said veteran Nashville forward Steve Sullivan, who has played in both conferences. “It’s tough to tell.”
Simply making the playoffs has traditionally been a tougher task out West.
The Predators had 100 points last season and only earned the No. 7 seed heading into the post-season. Meanwhile, St. Louis, Calgary and Anaheim finished just outside the playoff picture despite having more points than Montreal and Philadelphia, who went on to play each other in the Eastern Conference final.
The difference between the conferences was particularly pronounced during 2009-10 season. The Western Conference teams were 155-87-28 against those from the East.
That happens to be the same season Francois Beauchemin joined the Maple Leafs after spending five years in Anaheim and Columbus. He noticed a change.
“Personally, I think it’s a little bit more physical in the West,” said Beauchemin. “I don’t know why, but that’s what I felt last year when I came in here. The game was a little different.
“It’s the same league, but it’s different.”
History suggests the difference will continue to show up in wins and losses as the season goes on.
So, next time, you’re safe to say it Roberto: The West is best.
In keeping with the trend, another Western Conference team has moved to the top of our weekly rankings. Here’s a look at how we see the NHL from top to bottom (with last week’s ranking):
1. Detroit (5): Still the deepest team out there. And goaltender Jimmy Howard is showing no signs of a sophomore slump.
2. Washington (2): Here’s hoping Alex Ovechkin gets the chance to pick one of the league’s all-star teams. His personality will ensure the format change is successful.
3. Los Angeles (3): Off to the best start in franchise history, theKings have the look of a serious contender. Jonathan Quick has surrendered just 17 goals in 11 games.
4. Philadelphia (4): They’re running with Sergei Bobrovsky in goal. The rookie already has more victories this season than he did a year ago in the KHL.
5. Vancouver (7): Any fan that is frustrated with a highly ranked prospect need only look to the Sedin twins. They’re bonafide stars and it took some time.
6. Montreal (6): Carey Price is getting plenty of praise these days and with good reason. Jaroslav who?
7. St. Louis (1): Jaroslav Halak, that’s who. He’s started to come back to Earth after a tremendous start.
8. Boston (9): Tuukka Rask doesn’t have a victory during the first six weeks of the season and the Bruins are challenging for first in the Northeast. Who would have guessed?
9. Anaheim (12): The Honda Center has been a tough place for opponents to visit. Anaheim has gone 7-1-1 on home ice so far.
10. N.Y. Rangers (19): Welcome back, Marian Gaborik. He gets a hat trick immediately after returning from injury.
11. San Jose (21): Keep an eye on forward Logan Couture. He turned heads in the American Hockey League last season and has started producing for the Sharks.
12. Chicago (13): Viktor Stalberg is finding a fit with the Blackhawks. He has six goals, including an overtime winner over the weekend with the man who traded him away from Toronto (Brian Burke) looking on.
13. Pittsburgh (20): Sidney Crosby has goals in five straight games. It’s shaping up as a good race for the scoring title with Stamkos, Ovechkin and the Sedins.
14. Colorado (18): Matt Duchene drops the gloves for the first fight of his career. He more than held his own against Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka.
15. Ottawa (11): Classy move by the Senators to return home in the middle of a road trip to attend a memorial service for assistant coach Luke Richardson’s 14-year-old daughter, who died over the weekend.
16. Phoenix (25): Four of 20 hat tricks this season have come from Coyotes players, including Ray Whitney and Vernon Fiddler doing it on back-to-back nights last week.
17. Columbus (16): Derick Brassard has provided a nice source of secondary scoring. He has five goals and 11 points in his last eight games.
18. Minnesota (14): The owners of the NHL’s best power play. Quick, how many players can you name from their first power-play unit?
19. Tampa Bay (8): Coach Guy Boucher says his team is simply trying to survive a brutal travel schedule in the first half of the season. It’s been tough lately.
20. Nashville (10): Shane O’Brien has two goals already this season, matching his total from the previous 203 games. The Music City has been a good fit.
21. Atlanta (23): Ondrej Pavelec appears to have taken over the No. 1 job in goal. Good to see him playing well after a scary incident in the season opener.
22. Buffalo (28): Ryan Miller returns from injury and Tomas Vanek shows some life. Not surpisingly, a couple wins have followed.
23. Dallas (15): Three important home games loom after a tough road trip. Brad Richards appears headed for another big year.
24. Carolina (17): Paul Maurice didn’t hesitate to put his players through a hard practice after watching them lose 8-1 to Philadelphia and 7-2 to Montreal.
25. Calgary (22): Another tough week for a Sutter in Calgary. This time it’s Brett, who is on his way back to AHL Abbotsford following an incident outside a bar in Arizona.
26. Florida (26): They’re heading on the road for three games with coach Pete DeBoer preaching the need for a better record away from Sunrise. The time is now.
27. Toronto (24): Sliding further into oblivion, desperate times have arrived at the Air Canada Centre. How long before GM Brian Burke starts making more changes?
28. New Jersey (30): Ilya Kovalchuk has just four goals, putting him on pace to miss 40 for the first time since 2003. Wow.
29. Edmonton (27): The only word for that road trip is dreadful. During a five-game tour that wrapped up over the weekend, the Oilers were outscored 26-10.
30. N.Y. Islanders (29): Over to you, Jack Capuano. It’s worth noting that GM Garth Snow wants you to make this a playoff team.