NHL parity? What parity

calexander@newsobserevr.comOctober 22, 2013 

— For all the talk about parity in the NHL, here is a thought-provoking statistic:

Eastern Conference teams have a 21-33-6 record against Western Conference teams this season.

That was through Monday’s games. The Western record was enhanced Monday when the Colorado Avalanche went into Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins were undefeated this season, and won 1-0.

The Metropolitan Division, which includes the Carolina Hurricanes, has been particularly lagging. It had an 8-16-4 record against the West after Monday’s games.

So what gives? How can one conference be that dominant in a league that has a salary cap and yearly draft?

“I don’t know. Good question,” Canes forward Radek Dvorak said Tuesday. “But it’s been like this for a while.”

Dvorak has more than 1,200 games of NHL experience and has played both in the East (Florida, New York Rangers, Atlanta Thrashers) and West (Edmonton, St. Louis, Dallas, Anaheim). He played 73 games for the Stars two seasons ago, but just nine with the Ducks last season.

“When I was coming from East to West, for me the biggest change was the speed of the game,” Dvorak said. “I think in the West it’s more a straight-line game. Dump the puck in and go after the puck. So a little more about the forecheck.

“The last couple of years I thought the East was getting very close to the West in hockey style. But in the end I think it’s more about skating and making simple plays in the West.”

And physicality. Western teams do more bumping and grinding, and no more so than the Los Angeles Kings, the 2012 Stanley Cup champions.

“There’s more hitting, for sure,” Dvorak said. “The Kings are a good example. They don’t make difficult plays. It’s more go after the puck, hit a guy, receive the puck, hit a guy. A grinding style.”

The Canes faced the Kings on Oct. 11 – the start of three home games against Western teams. Carolina lost to Los Angeles in a shootout 2-1, was beaten 5-3 by the Phoenix Coyotes, then lost a 3-2 shootout to the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champs.

“L.A. was a big team, physical,” Canes defenseman Justin Faulk said. “The West teams do keep it simple – chip it in, go on the forecheck – as opposed to the east/west (game) on our side of the league.”

The Hurricanes (4-2-3) will face two more Western teams this week, both on the road. Carolina will go to Minnesota on Thursday, then Colorado on Friday back-to-back.

There were no East vs. West games in 2012-2013 because of a season shortened to 48 games by the NHL lockout. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, Eastern teams will play home-and-home series with every Western team each year.

One thing seems undeniable: reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs could hinge on how well the Eastern teams – now including the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets – fare in their games against the West.

“It will be a big thing at the end of the year,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “And everyone is saying the same thing when doing scouting reports – ‘Wow, I haven’t seen this team in two years.’ There’s a lot of extra work going on … to be prepared for them.”

Muller said playing styles can be trendy. He noted that when he played in the 1980s and ’90s, the Eastern Conference had the bruising, grinding style while the Western Conference was considered the “wild, wild West and wide open.”

Muller said the East has more star players now, noting Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

“There’s more skill on this side,” he said. “I think what we’ve seen is that (the West) has a little more overall bite to their game.”

Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, before the game at PNC Arena, referred to the Eastern style as “run and gun, up and down, a lot of skating, a lot of attack.” Western teams, he said, were more physical, more defensive.

Muller said the Cup success of the Kings and Blackhawks have put other Western teams both in a catchup mode and in some cases a copy-cat mode.

“It happens when you have a couple of good teams and you try to out-do them, so you get a little bigger and you grind a little bit more and get more physical to match each other,” Muller said. “That’s the cycle that happens.”

Muller said Minnesota and Colorado appear to be exceptions, preferring a high-tempo game similar to what the Canes encountered Saturday in topping the New York Islanders 4-3.

“The St. Louis’ and the L.A.’s and those teams are the big, grinding, straight-north teams, nothing special about their games,” he said. “We’ll see two teams this week, ironically, that play a quick-paced game.”

Faulk did a double-take Tuesday when told the East’s record against the West.

“I haven’t noticed that,” he said. “Maybe we can help that out this week.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

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