Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and even my Ottawa Senators are the teams that have been traditionally and / or currently dominant in the NHL East. In fact, these teams combine for more Stanley Cups then the rest of the NHL combined. Of course, this is largely due to the stellar play of the Habs over the years. But all is not well in the East. This conference has traditionally been heralded as the "finnese" conference. The champions of skill and speed but weak in strength and hits. One would assume that teams like this would have continued or renewed success in the "new NHL" but this is not the case. The Western conference is where the big boys play and it has been proven that strength matters more then skill in the new NHL.
Let's start by setting the table. The last 10 Stanley Cups have been a respectable 6-4 in favour of the West. You must be thinking, "FCB, what do you mean the West in dominating? 6-4 is nothing to write home to mom about." You're right... seemingly it isn't but if we dig a bit deeper you'll see why the West is the new NHL best.
I'll start from 10 years back and move to the present before I get ahead of myself. This takes us to the 96/97 season (04/05 was a lockout year so I'm adding an extra year). The Wings sweep the Flyers for the cup. The Eastern conference champions lost an embarrassing 4 straight to a dominating Detroit team. The next year Detroit wins again... and sweeps the series 4-0 over a Cinderella Washington Capitals. The East is yet again embarrassed. 1998 /1999 sees the Western Dallas Stars taking the cup in a convincing 4-2 series over Buffalo. The next season the Star would return to the big dance but lose a tough 4-2 series against the Devils. The newly moved Avs take the Cup in 00/01 over Brodeur's Devils. This one actually went the distance to 7 games. Detroit returns in 01/02 against a surprising Carolina Hurricanes team. The Wings dominate the Canes 4 games to 1.
At this point we've seen a Western team win 5 of 6 Stanley Cups. The next 3 seasons have Eastern teams winning the cup: Jersey, Tampa and Carolina respectively. Now, you must be saying "3 of the last 4 years the East has one. The West is not dominating anymore!" Wrong. The Western teams took each series to 7 games... all of them. The series were VERY close, hard fought and long. Prior to this the West was winning and winning big. When they did make it to the finals they took the East to 7 games.
Fast forward to last year and we see the surging Ottawa Senators exorcising their playoff demons by beating New Jersey and Buffalo and meeting up with the Disney Ducks in the finals. Ottawa was considered the underdog in the finals and they certainly appeared that way. The Ducks took the series 4-1. Why? Better goaltending, gritty play and good old fashioned hockey. The same hockey that we see the NHL-leading Wings, competitive Ducks and streaking Sharks playing right now.
As much as the "new NHL" should make finnese, speed and skill more important it's Western conference hockey that is winning. The West has better goalies then the East and bigger, tougher players. As hopeful as the youthful Penguins are--they don't have a goalie or the toughness to win. Same goes for Ottawa, Montreal and even Jersey. The Devils may have Martin Brodeur but the rest of the team isn't big enough or tough to win playoff hockey against a Western giant.
The sleeping giants of the west from the last 3 years have awoken and they are not happy. They will feed on a weak Eastern team this year and the West will once again have the Cup. Mark my words: a Western team will take the Cup this year.