Tak­ing a step back

NHL’s Western Con­fer­ence not quite the pow­er­house it once was

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS -

Af­ter fin­ish­ing with the usual game-day ques­tions, Min­nesota Wild for­ward Zach Parise was in­trigued by one more query.

Could he point to why, af­ter so many years as the NHL’s dom­i­nant force, the Western Con­fer­ence seems to have taken a step back the last two sea­sons?

“I don’t know, that’s a good ques­tion,” said Parise. “Prob­a­bly par­ity. Games are hard. You look at the stand­ings now in our con­fer­ence and there’s only two teams that are out (Colorado and Ari­zona). “It didn’t use to be like that.” There was a time not that long ago when fin­ish­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son with 87, 88 or 89 points wasn’t worth much in the West.

From 2001 to 2015, teams grab­bing the con­fer­ence’s fi­nal play­off spot wound up sit­ting any­where be­tween 90 and 99 points, with 91 points (four times) and 95 points (three times) the most com­mon to­tals.

The Los An­ge­les Kings missed the play­offs two sea­sons ago with 95 points, while the Dal­las Stars in 2011 and Colorado Avalanche in 2007 suf­fered the same fate.

But for the sec­ond year in a row, it looks like less than 90 points might be enough for a club, and quite pos­si­bly two, to get into the West’s top-8.

“It’s sur­pris­ing, to be hon­est,” said Min­nesota goalie De­van Dub­nyk.

Last sea­son it took just 87 points for the Wild to make the play­offs in the West — the low­est since San Jose’s 87 in 2000 — while Nashville grabbed 96 to earn the first wild-card spot. Five of the con­fer­ence’s other six play­off teams fin­ished with 100 points or more.

Philadel­phia made the post­sea­son with 96 points in the East last year, but Bos­ton missed out with 93.

Bos­ton also failed to get in with 96 points in 2015, but over the pre­vi­ous 12 sea­sons — ex­clud­ing the two lock­out­short­ened cam­paigns — it took any­where from 83 to 94 points in the East to make the top-8.

Min­nesota, Chicago and San Jose are the only West teams on pace to crack 100 points in 2016-17. St. Louis is track­ing to­wards 89 points as the con­fer­ence’s first wild-card team, while Cal­gary, which has played two more games, is in the sec­ond spot on an 86-point pace.

Los An­ge­les is a point back in ninth, but hav­ing played two fewer games than Cal­gary, is run­ning at an 88-point clip.

Viewed as the weaker of the two con­fer­ences for a num­ber of years, the East has had quite a resur­gence. Five clubs are on course to crack the 100-point mark, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton, Colum­bus, Pitts­burgh and the New York Rangers in the high­oc­tane Metropoli­tan Di­vi­sion, along with Mon­treal.

The Rangers oc­cupy the first wild card in the East and are on pace for 107 points.

But it’s not just the top teams. Af­ter the East’s top-5 clubs, the next 11 are sep­a­rated by just six points in the bat­tle for the three re­main­ing play­off berths. De­spite sit­ting in the base­ment, Tampa Bay still owns a .500 record and is just five points out.

“Western teams are hav­ing a tougher time against the Eastern teams, es­pe­cially early on in the year,” said Canucks for­ward Alexan­dre Bur­rows. “It seemed like ev­ery time there was a con­fer­ence matchup the East team would win.”

Bur­rows pointed to clubs in the West sac­ri­fic­ing prospects and draft picks the last few years to make a run, while oth­ers in the East were more likely to hold onto their as­sets.

“Some of th­ese East teams loaded up on draft picks,” he said. “Western teams felt they could go all the way and got some rental players and un­loaded some picks.”

CP PHOTO

Min­nesota Wild left wing Zach Parise (11) is roughed up by an Ed­mon­ton Oiler dur­ing NHL ac­tion in Ed­mon­ton, Alta. on Jan. 31.

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