For those watching the Stanley Cup playoffs, there has been a subtle difference in the style of play this spring. Specifically, there has been a serious case of role reversal between the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Until this year, it used to be that the Western Conference was the battle of attrition, that series weren’t won by teams as much as they were survived. The Eastern Conference, meanwhile, provided its teams with a much easier path to the Stanley Cup final. But if you look closely enough, the Eastern Conference has all growed up and basically become the west. And after years of slugging it out with each other, the Western Conference has become a bunch of lightweights.
Now there are several factors at work here, the first being that two of the three California-based teams didn’t even make the playoffs this year. Another is that the goaltending in the Eastern Conference so far in these playoffs has been far superior to some of the inconsistent goaltending we’ve seen plague the west.
But the difference is remarkable. Entering today’s busy schedule of three games, the Eastern Conference has played a total of 28 games so far and just 117 goals have been scored, for a per-game average of just 4.18. The Western Conference, meanwhile, has had just 24 games so far and 142 goals have been scored, for an average of 5.92 goals per game. But it’s not just because of goaltending. In terms of shot attempts, the games in the Western Conference have featured 95.3 per game so far, while the Eastern Conference games have had just 89.4. And this is despite the fact that teams in the east are averaging close to one power play per game more than teams in the west.
A shade under six fewer shots per game and a shade under 1.75 fewer goals per game are being scored in the Eastern Conference in this playoff. Could we be seeing a paradigm shift in the way the two conferences are playing? Well, it sure looks like it when you apply both the analytics and eyeball tests. The numbers tell us indisputably that goals are much harder to come by in the Eastern Conference. The New York Rangers are having all kinds of trouble scoring, with just 15 goals in seven games. The Montreal Canadiens have just four non-empty-net goals in their past four games and only two of their players – Max Pacioretty and Dale Weise – have more than two playoff goals. The Washington Capitals gave up their first power-play goal of the playoffs in Game 2 against the Rangers Saturday and of the six shutouts that have been recorded in these playoffs, five of them have been by Eastern Conference teams.
There have been four seven-goal games in the Eastern Conference. There have been 10 of them in the Western Conference, including one 11-goal game and a nine-goal game. Western Conference teams have been blowing leads all over the place and have pulled goalies eight times mid-game so far, compared to just twice in the Eastern Conference. Eight of the top-10 scoring teams in the playoffs so far are Western Conference teams and with 4.4 goals per game, the Anaheim Ducks are scoring almost twice as many as the top-scoring team in the Eastern Conference, with the Tampa Bay Lightning scoring just 2.38 per game. Conversely, eight of the top-10 defensive teams in the playoffs are Eastern Conference teams.
Speaking of the Ducks, no team was given a potentially easier road to the conference final than they were. The Ducks dispatched Winnipeg in four games in the first round and face Calgary in Round 2, a team that has been a plucky bunch with a great backstory, but one that appears to be in way over its head after the first game of the series. Yes, much can change, but is there any team left in the playoffs that a team would want to play against in a seven-game series more than the Flames? As great a feel-good story as they’ve become, the reality is the Flames are in the second round because they played a very flawed team in the first round.
In the Eastern Conference, meanwhile, things have tightened up in a big way. The Washington Capitals are among the biggest teams in the league, so getting past them will be no easy feat for the New York Rangers. The winner of that series faces the prospect of playing either the Montreal Canadiens and probable Hart Trophy winner Carey Price next round or the Lightning, who are currently giving up an average of two goals a game. All four goalies remaining in the Eastern Conference have been far superior to their Western Conference counterparts and the east is playing a far more grinding style with fewer quality chances and breakdowns.
It’s almost as those these playoffs have become the NHL’s version of Freaky Friday, except this one is lasting for a lot longer than one day and there’s no end in the foreseeable future.