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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Defensive Grinders Give East Big Advantage Over the West

February 13, 1996|Helene Elliott

East is East and West is West, and when the twain meet on NHL rinks, the East has a clear edge.

There are huge differences in style and quality between the conferences. Five of the top seven defensive teams are in the East--the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers--and the East has produced the last five Stanley Cup champions. Eastern teams are generally bigger and deeper, and their games more competitive.

"There's been a difference as long as I can remember," Flyer goaltender Ron Hextall said. "The West has always been more wide open, and the East more grinding. In the playoffs, when you clamp down defensively, teams in the East have it easier because they've been doing it all season."

Through Monday, Eastern teams were 122-103-33 against the West. If the playoffs started today, seven of eight Eastern qualifiers would be above .500. In the West, only four would be.

"The East is more defensive-oriented," said King Coach Larry Robinson, who was an assistant coach when the Devils won the Eastern Conference title and the Cup last season. "They really concentrate on keeping their goals-against down, with maybe the exception of Pittsburgh. Their chemistry is different. They tend to have big grinders."

The Rangers, Penguins and Panthers are closely matched in the East, but there's no question who's best in the West. The Detroit Red Wings are dominating, with a league-high 80 points and a league-low 2.16 team goals-against average. The Chicago Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche are a step below them, but after that, there's a steep drop-off.

The Toronto Maple Leafs hold the fourth playoff spot by default, and the St. Louis Blues haven't been more than two games above .500 in nearly two months. The Vancouver Canucks haven't been above .500 since they were 5-4-5 on Nov. 7. The only team making noise is the Calgary Flames, who are 13-6-4 since mid-December, when they adopted the neutral-zone trap used by New Jersey and Florida.

It won't be a surprise if the Blackhawks, who have a rugged defense, win the West title. The Red Wings, swept in last year's finals by the Devils, will fall short again unless they acquire a physical defenseman and muscular forward and play more like an Eastern team.

NO PAT ANSWERS

Rumors that the Buffalo Sabres will send center Pat LaFontaine and his five-year, $22.5-million contract to New Jersey or Philadelphia won't die. It's all talk so far, but Sabre scouts have been seen at games involving the Devils' Albany farm team.

"I've had no communications with the two alleged teams," said Don Meehan, LaFontaine's agent. "Remember, it's a pretty big contract."

Any team interested in LaFontaine would probably contact Meehan to ask whether LaFontaine would play for that team--and perhaps to ask if the 30-year-old center might restructure his contract to fit its budget. He will earn $4.3 million in salary and bonuses this season.

Meehan's own budget has been restructured. As part of an agent-certification program that resulted from the collective bargaining agreement, agents were prohibited from representing players and management after Jan. 20. Meehan's clients included eight coaches, the NHL Officials Assn., and 80 players. Meehan, no dummy, kept his players and handed off the rest.

FLYING NOT-SO-HIGH

LaFontaine's scoring touch would be a welcome addition to the Flyers, but their real shortfall is in muscle.

"There's been talk we need toughness because we played Montreal and they bullied us a bit and St. Louis did the same," Hextall said. "I think [Flyer executives] are looking at toughness. Everybody's looking to Eric [Lindros] to fight, but we don't want him to. It's a concern."

The missing ingredient could be Hartford forward Brendan Shanahan, who reportedly was told by Whaler executives that if the team is out of the Eastern playoff race, he will be traded to a contender. However, the Whalers are 9-2-1 since Jan. 12 and are tied for the last playoff spot.

COLOR HIM VERY RED

Vancouver Canuck goalie Corey Hirsch has a unique problem: The red in the team's third uniform clashes with his carrot-colored hair.

"I try to stay away from red and orange," he said. "The new colors don't do much for my hair, but I'm not Dennis Rodman. I'm not going to change my hair to go with the jersey."

From a hockey standpoint, Hirsch looks fine. He has started 14 consecutive games in place of Kirk McLean, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Jan. 16. McLean's recovery has been slower than anticipated, but Hirsch has filled in capably. He's 6-5-4 so far.

COLD PENGUINS

Despite the Pittsburgh Penguins' many offensive weapons, they still struggle without Mario Lemieux. They're 2-4-2 in games he has missed and their league-leading power play is three for 39 without him.

Lemieux, who sat out last Wednesday at New Jersey, will rest more in the final weeks of the season. He was held without a point Monday by Toronto.

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