Parity's alive and well in East

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:37 AM ET

They likely could suggest some lottery numbers for you to try out.

Or tell you how those candy-bar makers actually get the caramel inside the Caramilk bar.

But ask NHL general managers Don Waddell and Paul Holmgren how the shoehorned Eastern Conference standings will play out by the end of the season, and both are at a loss for answers.

"I think parity is a word we all will get tired of hearing because it's going to be used more and more," said Waddell, the GM/coach of the Atlanta Thrashers. "By the last week of the season I think you're still going to see at least six teams battling for the final two playoff spots."

Like one of those crazy roller-coaster rides at an amusement park near you, teams throughout the East have gone up and down to the point of leaving the heads of their GMs dizzy.

Consider, for example, the early season trials and tribulations of Waddell's Thrashers and Holmgren's Philadelphia Flyers.

Less than three weeks into the season, the struggling Thrashers had lost their opening six games, so Waddell axed coach Bob Hartley and stepped behind the bench himself.

In Philly, meanwhile, Holmgren's extensive retooling job was paying instant dividends, with the Flyers rocketing out of the starting gate at 6-1.

Two teams going in opposite directions, right?

Not so fast.

Entering play Thursday the Flyers, ranked seventh in the conference, were just one point ahead of the Thrashers, who were 11th. It was all part of a standings logjam that saw just five points separate the No. 3 Carolina Hurricanes from the No. 13 Florida Panthers.

Blame the collective bargaining agreement and the accompanying salary cap, which have evened the playing field throughout the league.

"That's the only reason I can come up with," Holmgren said. "It's the easy response. Maybe the best response, too."

Speaking from the Czech Republic, where he has been attending the world junior hockey championship, Holmgren pores over the NHL standings on a daily basis, even when he is overseas.

"Just look at our (Atlantic) division," Holmgren said, one which features the Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins. "In our division, if you have one bad weekend, you are in fifth place."

According to Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, goaltending and injuries will be the keys in determining which teams will creep out of the pack in order to secure one of the eight post-season berths.

With forwards Justin Williams, Matt Cullen, Scott Walker and defenceman David Tanabe all hobbled and on the shelf for Carolina, Rutherford is well schooled on the subject.

"Ottawa is the best team in the East, but it has shown it is beatable," Rutherford said. "As for the rest, each team has good players. But because of the cap, there is not a lot of depth on the rosters. A few significant injuries and you're in trouble."

As the NHL season hits the halfway mark, even the mighty Senators have exhibited a vulnerable underbelly. A seven-game losing funk in late November through early December had fans in the nation's capital in a panic, a reaction that proved to be a bit premature.

As the season enters its second half, the East appears to have more electrifying upper-echelon forwards than the Western Conference. Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Vincent Lecavalier have dominated the highlight reels while boy wonder Sidney Crosby has continued to have a flair for the dramatic, as witnessed by his shootout winner against the Buffalo Sabres in front of more than 70,000 fans at the Winter Classic.

On the downside, the East was plagued with ugly incidents through the first three months of the season. The Islanders' Chris Simon is suspended again, this time for an NHL record 30 games, while the Flyers, perhaps revisiting the Broad St. Bullies days, have been slapped with a variety of deserved suspensions.

"A year ago there were games you might figure might be easy but not any more," Waddell said. "It's going to be a heck of a race."


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