Three seasons ago, it seemed pretty obvious where the best teams in the NHL lived...the Western Conference.
The Ducks had just beaten the Senators in 5 games to win their first cup. They appeared to be a team that could easily repeat. They were physical...mean even...and could score goals to boot.
While the Ducks did not repeat as champions, the Detroit Red Wings finally put it all together (again), and won the Stanley Cup last year. Along the way to hoisting the cup, they appeared to be a dominant team that could also easily repeat. Their mix of skill, physical play (when needed) and almost inhuman precision, seemed unbeatable.
For those two seasons, it really did not appear that ANY of the Eastern Conference teams could beat the best the Western Conference had to offer.
But, in 2008-09, the Eastern Conference seemed to take big strides toward leveling that playing field.
****EDIT ...because of a bone-headed mistake when transferring stats to excel, the following paragraph is incorrect...The WEST actually was 12 games above .500 against the EAST...****
The 2008-09 NHL schedule was revised to include more games against teams from the OTHER conference, up from 10 to 18. In the process, the Eastern Conference teams compiled a record against the West that was 16 games over .500. While this does conclusively indicate dominance, it is interesting to see such a large PLUS in the wins category -- when one would assume these inter-conference records are historically closer to .500 (please feel free to refute this...I only did the math on the last 3 seasons).
**** END OF EDIT
OK...so even if the above paragraph is NOT TRUE...
Teams like the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals became legitimate cup contenders with a mix of offensive fire power and improved physical play. They joined the Devils, Flyers, Canadiens, Rangers and the resurgent Hurricanes as teams that were showing an increasing ability to match the style of play that the Western Conference teams were known for.
The Red Wings would again make it to the finals in 2008-09, but would ultimately lose a tough fought 7 game series against the team they had beaten the year before.
As we progress during this off season, we see teams like the Flyers making a deal to acquire a marquee defenseman, Chris Pronger, from the Ducks. A move that clearly says the Flyers think they have most of what they need to compete for a cup NOW.
Along those lines, we see rumors that teams like the Habs, Sabres, Isles and Leafs are interested in the Sedin Twins. And of course, the Islanders (by virtue of their season), have taken potential future offensive star John Tavares, first in this year's draft.
Of course, the Flames did land Jay Bouwmeester via a trade, and we haven't even seen what surprises free agency will bring us yet...but I think it's safe to say that the Eastern Conference teams appear to be ready to better compete for the cup, than they were say 2 or 3 years ago.
Obviously, in pro sports, dominance goes in cycles. Sometimes they are long cycles and sometimes short. Sometimes, no real dominance at all. In the new NHL, it's possible via trades and free agency that the power could shift from one conference to another in a very short period of time.
Are we seeing the beginning of a time period when the best hockey will be played by Eastern Conference teams?