There’s a bunch of evidence piling up, day by standings day, showing us that the Western Conference is significantly deeper than the Eastern Conference. And within the Eastern Conference, the Bruins’ Northeast Division is making a case for itself as the weakest division in the NHL.
Consider that, as of Wednesday morning, there is as much space (seven points) between eighth and ninth place in the Eastern Conference as there is between fourth place and 15th in the West. From the down-to-up perspective, the gap between the Eastern have-nots (those currently out of playoff position) and haves is as great as the difference between the worst team in the West and having home-ice advantage in the first playoff round.
The difference between the conferences isn’t at the top. It’s at the bottom — especially important as the Lowly Islanders (you didn’t realize that they had moved from Uniondale to Lowly?) are coming to the TD Garden on Thursday night.
The top five teams in the East are Pittsburgh, Washington, Montreal, Philadelphia and Boston. The bottom five teams in the East (and, embarrassingly, five of the worst six in the overall/lottery standings) are — from the bottom, up — the Islanders, New Jersey, Toronto, Florida and Carolina. If Edmonton continues to gain traction and jumps to 27 points, the East could well have the worst seven teams in the league. That means that after the playoff line is drawn, the rest of the East is dreck.
The East’s top five are a collective 26-5-3 against the East’s bottom five, a point percentage of .809. When you take into account Cam Ward‘s I’m-a-new-daddy-standing-on-my-head performance against the Bruins and a couple of other factors facing other top-five teams in these games, it’s as close to free points as one reasonably can project when the top guns meet the pop guns.
The Bruins are in a massively unbalanced conference that has forgiven a lot of sluggish play and inconsistent special teams work. We may not get an accurate “read” of where this Boston team stands in the league until the stretch starting in late January when the B’s face Colorado, L.A., Dallas, San Jose and Detroit (twice) in a span of about three weeks.
In the Northeast Division, there are the Canadiens, the Bruins and three teams whose coaches have answered questions about their job stability. Ottawa’s Cory Clouston, Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff and Toronto’s Ron Wilson all are on the firing line unless dramatic turnarounds take place.
Points against the weak sisters will help the Bruins find the mode of play that has yet to appear for a significant stretch — the kind of play that doesn’t rely on Tim Thomas‘ historic start or miraculous third periods. The Bruins were ahead twice at Toronto on Saturday and had to settle for a shootout-loss point. That left them 5-1-1 against the L’East — good until you realize that of the top-five group, only Montreal (at 5-3) has a weaker mark. And the Montreal record, unsettlingly, nudges us toward the weakest-division suspicion again.
The Bruins have the potential to be an Eastern Diesel, loudly knocking opponents off their front bumper from the opening drop and accelerating away in a final-period exhaust blast of overwhelming will. The B’s have the engine, they have the chassis and they have the wheels, but they need to get them all to work together for a good long haul.
The Islanders come visiting at TD Garden on Thursday night. If the B’s are the kind of team that is going to drive in the fast lane, they could show it by leaving some roadkill.