"There are some great teams in the West, but in the East you see more big wingers, closer checking, no free ice, the way it is during the playoffs," says Brendan Shanahan, the Hartford Whalers' left wing who spent four seasons in the Western Conference with the St. Louis Blues. "Most Eastern teams don't have to adjust much to playoff style because they always try to play that way."
The distinctive styles exist, in part, because the Western Conference still suffers from an Edmonton hangover. The species has largely stopped evolving; the other teams in the West are still trying to match the Oilers' standards of speed and skill even though the Edmonton dynasty is dead.
"You build a team to win its conference, to beat the teams it plays all the time," says Harry Neale, the former NHL coach who is now a television analyst. "Most of the Western teams still have the mentality that they have to get quicker and score more. They're still not over Edmonton."
"That," says Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn, "is what happens when you have Wayne Gretzky in your conference."
"You're only as good as your competition, and here you gear up to be the best team in the East," says Flyers center Craig MacTavish, who won three Stanley Cups in Edmonton ('87, '88 and '90) and another with the Rangers. "You saw the result clearly last year when there was no interconference play. Detroit suffered. Eastern teams build around big, aggressive forwards. The Eastern philosophy is more successful right now—that's obvious."
2) The Eastern Conference has better talent. Or, as Calgary Flames right wing Theoren Fleury puts it, "The reason the East's stronger? Mark Messier moved out of the West."
The truth is, though, the talent in the Eastern Conference runs deep. With all due respect to Gretzky, Joe Sakic, Chris Chelios, Alexander Mogilny and Brett Hull, the five players who had the most profound effect on hockey during the first half of this season were all from the East. Messier scored 31 goals and made all the hits while carrying the Rangers; Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were playing hide-and-seek with the scoring title; Eric Lindros of the Flyers has become the 21st-century prototype, the mean, physical scoring center that every general manager wants to build a team around; and goalie John Vanbiesbrouck continues to be the foundation of the remarkable Panthers. The team with the best player—Gretzky in the 1980s, Lemieux in 1991-92, Messier in 1994—wins the Stanley Cup more often than not.
In the kaleidoscopic world of goaltending, where even legends fade in and out, the Eastern Conference boasts a still more striking advantage—and not simply because its goalies see fewer two-on-ones. Besides Vanbiesbrouck, the East has the Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek (winner of the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie the past two years), Mike Richter of the Rangers and Martin Brodeur of the Devils. That's a more impressive group than Detroit's Chris Osgood, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Felix Potvin and the revitalized Grant Fuhr, who has started every game this season for St. Louis. The trade of Patrick Roy to the West ( Montreal to Colorado) and Bill Ranford to the East ( Edmonton to Boston) is a stand-off.
3) Travel puts the Western Conference at a big disadvantage.
The wide-open spaces in the West are not confined to center ice. While the Rangers, the Devils, the Flyers and the New York Islanders collect frequent Greyhound miles, Western Conference teams flit among four time zones for intraconference matches. The problems are less severe for a Central Division dweller such as the Blackhawks or teams that own planes such as the Avalanche, but the Flames will charter a flight just nine times this season, which translates into a lot of airport downtime.