SUN Hockey Pool

East no longer least in NHL

Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins lifts the Stanley Cup as the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in game 7...

Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins lifts the Stanley Cup as the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C. , on Wednesday June 15th 2011. (ERIC BOLTE/QMI Agency)

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:37 PM ET

Confession time: We've been calling the NHL's Eastern Conference the junior varsity division for the past few years.

It's been warranted, too.

Even though two of the last three Stanley Cup winners hail from that side of the ledger, it's been the weaker side of league.

Oh sure, there are really good teams on that side of the continent, but there have been some truly horrible clubs, and horrible year after year after year.

Take the Florida Panthers, who haven't made the playoffs since the spring of 2000 and have rarely been close. Talk about a free space on the bingo card.

The New York Islanders aren't much better.

Nor are the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Atlanta Thrashers/ Winnipeg Jets.

The Ottawa Senators are destined to be all but mathematically eliminated by January for a couple more years.

Plus, you have a couple of teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning, which seem to yo-yo from contender to regular-season fodder.

(Yes, we know the Edmonton Oilers haven't made the playoffs the past five seasons and finished last each of the past two campaigns, while the Columbus Blue Jackets have just one blip on their run of missing the post-season, but there are so many more of those teams in the Eastern Conference, and they get to beat up each other with regularity.)

Just imagine if there was a balanced schedule.

But, as Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin.

The Eastern Conference is not only top heavy with Stanley Cup-contending teams, but also has seen the accordion compress from the contenders to the pretenders.

First off, you can easily make a case there are at least four top-flight, watch-out-for-them squads in the defending champion Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers (who have finally addressed their longtime goaltending woes), Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins.

Even the middle tier has grown.

The Buffalo Sabres are enjoying the spending spree owner Terry Pegula has gone on since taking over the team, and should enjoy a bounceback season from all-world goalie Ryan Miller.

The Montreal Canadiens keep staying in that mid-level territory, as do the New York Rangers and the high-scoring Lightning, provided 42-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson can keep his game in order.

Even more tantalizing is the fact the next wave of teams are all improved. OK, the Senators are destined for yet another dismal year, but the Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg

Jets and the Islanders are on the upsw ing, and the New Jersey Devils should be better with a healthy Zach Parise.

Who knows, maybe the Panthers will be competitive thanks to all the pricey free-agent and trade acquisitions made in the summer. Suddenly, there are all kinds of proven players, although the defence corps and goaltending leave plenty to be desired.

None of those teams -- the Maple Leafs, Islanders, Jets, Devils or Panthers -- look close enough to be a playoff team in the Western Conference, but at least they aren't all destined to be thinking about next season long before the all-star break.

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNRandySportak


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