Justin Williams felt it —the sense of superiority, the confidence that bordered on smugness that emanated from nearly every NHL city in the Western Conference. That idea that the West was where real hockey was played, physical hockey, heavy hockey, big-boy hockey. And that the East put out an inferior product played by overmatched teams.
“There was that attitude in the West, yeah,” Williams said. “That feeling that, ‘We can beat any team in the East.’ That there weren’t as many great teams over there. That was definitely the feeling within the dressing rooms in the West.”
And why not? The Blackhawks and Williams’ Los Angeles Kings won five of six Stanley Cups between 2010 and 2015, and every year the list of true contenders in the West towered over that of the East.
“In the Western Conference, any one of the eight teams in the playoffs could come out, and everyone felt that way,” said Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell, who spent the past five seasons with the Florida Panthers. “I don’t think it felt that way in the East. Not as much as in the West, at least.”
But the balance of power has shifted rather suddenly in the NHL, as the East is loaded with contenders, Pittsburgh is the defending Stanley Cup champion. Tampa Bay is loaded and set up for long-term contention. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and is off to another great start, beating the Hawks 3-2 in overtime on Friday. Montreal has ridden the league’s best goalie, Carey Price, to a 12-1-1 start as it heads into Sunday’s showdown with the Hawks. The New York Rangers are a pleasant surprise. Other than maybe two or three rebuilding teams, every team in the East looks like a potential playoff team.
And the West? Well, it doesn’t look so intimidating all of a sudden. For all the perennial talk about how difficult the Central Division is, it’s been pretty underwhelming so far. The Hawks sit atop the division despite having six rookies in the lineup and a top-heavy forward group. The Blues have taken a step back, the banged-up Stars still have poor goaltending, the Predators have been disappointing, and the Wild, Jets and Avalanche are middling as ever.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Division has fallen hard, with the upstart Edmonton Oilers leading the way.
This, of course, is good news for the Hawks. The road back to the playoffs and even to the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t look nearly as daunting as it has in recent years.
“The East is obviously improved,” said Williams, who now plays for the Capitals. “Maybe we were a little biased playing in the West, that we felt most of the better teams were there. I know I felt that way. But now that I’m in here, it’s different. It’s at least getting more equal in the amount of really, really good teams in each conference.”
It’s good news for hockey fans, too. Because the East is proving that speed and skill can be every bit as effective as physicality and defense. The Hawks always have been an anomaly of sorts in the West, a small, skilled team in the land of giants. But just a year or two removed from contention, big imposing teams such as Anaheim and Los Angeles suddenly look like lumbering dinosaurs in a league which has passed them by. It’s all about speed now — Hawks-style hockey, Penguins-style hockey.
The success of the finesse-oriented Penguins last season, and even the memorable but brief run of Team North America at the World Cup, have made fun hockey en vogue.
“You can see the game changing,” Patrick Kane said. “Rarely do you see third- or fourth-line grinder types of players now. It seems like these fourth lines are all young kids coming in that have a lot of speed and create some energy and produce, too.”
Said Scott Darling: “It’s just a natural progression, because the players are so good now. They’re so fast. You have to be fast to keep up.”
In an ever-changing league, the Hawks have been the one constant. Built to succeed in the modern NHL, and with perhaps an easier road out of the West than they’ve seen before, the championship window remains open. But as the Hawks are learning this weekend, being the best in the West might no longer be enough.
“Over the last year, it got a lot closer,” Joel Quenneville said. “And this year, they look like they’re ahead.”