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Top Shelf: Rise of the East means tough playoff road

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

You’d never get any Pittsburgh Penguins to tell you it was easy.

The Pens stomped to the Stanley Cup final in 14 games last year and were never extended beyond five games in any of the three series it took to get there.

Now, you have to believe they had the bumps and bruises to belie the notion they rolled through the East like college kids on a road trip. No matter how many or few games it takes to do it, advancing to the Cup final is a serious undertaking that requires skill, will and luck.

But when you look at the Pens’ path last year versus what it will take to win the Eastern Conference title this year, it’s clear every team’s trainers better get ready to log some overtime.

Playoff time – also known as the most wonderful time of the year – is usually preceded by talk of which teams got hot in the second half and might be primed for a Cup push.

This year’s leap wasn’t really defined by one club in the East – more like a conference-wide commitment to improving.

New Jersey became one of the best teams in the NHL in 2009 before welcoming Martin Brodeur back.

Pittsburgh put Dan Bylsma in place of Michel Therrien behind the bench in mid-February and is 12-2-3 since the shift.

Carolina re-acquired Erik Cole at the deadline and the team has points in nine of 10 games since then.

John Tortorella and Sean Avery have spiced things up in New York, where, don’t forget, Henrik Lundqvist still plays.

Add it all up and you start to see why the Eastern Conference winner won’t touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It’s not just for silly superstitious reasons, but rather because they’ll be too physically run down to lift the darn thing up.

Some may point at Boston’s bumpy second half as evidence not every Eastern team is cresting. Personally, I’d say bet against the Bruins at your own peril. Tough, deep teams with something to prove tend to do well come playoff time.

Even Washington and Philadelphia, two teams that haven’t swayed much one way or the other over the last little while, have reason for added optimism.

The Caps remind me a bit of the Chicago Blackhawks in that they’ve known roughly where they were going to finish in the standings since about the fourth game of the season. Motivation is sometimes tough to come by under those circumstances, but I’d bet my hockey card collection the Caps will crank things up come April. And with a young, hungry crew motivated by a first round collapse against Philly last year, Washington is ready to be a winner.

Goaltending questions are as heavily associated with Philadelphia as Rocky and cheese-steak sandwiches. Not long ago, it looked as though Antero Niittymaki – to our knowledge, no distant relative of Bernie Parent – was the Flyers’ only hope. But Martin Biron has pulled his game together over the past month or so and looks ready to repeat the strong showing he made as a playoff rookie one year ago.

Now, not every Eastern squad has kicked it into high gear at this crucial segment of the season. It remains to be seen which of Buffalo, Montreal and Florida will be least bad over the final stretch and claim the last playoff spot. At least the Sabres can blame some of their troubles on key injuries to Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller. Florida and especially Montreal should be a lot more introspective.

Even some of the East’s bottom-feeders are feasting a bit more these days. The Ottawa Senators have caught fire since falling out of the playoff picture (assuming you believe they’re out), Atlanta has been better than respectable for more than a month and even the Isles have risen up from complete doormat status as players vie for jobs next year.

The rise of the East should actually buoy the spirits of teams out West. Typically, the Western Conference champion has beaten at least one team that started the playoffs with legit Cup hopes before advancing to the final. That kind of work leaves a mark.

This year will be no different, until they get to the final and face a club that had to beat some true contenders – and take the requisite lumps – along the way, too.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

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