Eastern team guaranteed favorite in Cup final

PHILADELPHIA -- Since 1994, the road to the Stanley Cup always looked like an arduous trek to a mountain top a team in the Eastern Conference.

Plumbers and grinders?

Sherpas would have been better.

Now, with the earth-shaking developments in the West this spring, the mountains have been flattened.

For the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils, the two teams left standing in the East, the road between them and the Stanley Cup isn't as daunting an uphill climb. Now, it's a matter of avoiding potholes.

For the first time in that decade, a team from the East will be favored going into this year's Stanley Cup final, regardless who emerges from the remaining five teams.

The Senators, who appear to be gathering momentum, outscoring the Philadelphia Flyers 10-3 in the final two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, are the Presidents' Trophy champions and are now playing up to their No. 1 seed.

The Devils made short work of the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, beating them both in five games. They are the only Eastern team to win the Stanley Cup in the last nine years, doing it twice ('95 and 2000).

Both the Senators and the Devils earned more points in the regular season than any of the three teams left in the Western Conference, giving the Eastern Conference home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup final.

The landscape out west has been altered by the giant killers.

The Detroit Red Wings, the second seed in the West and the defending Stanley Cup champions, were the first to fall, swept aside by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Colorado Avalanche, the third seed, fell to the Minnesota Wild. The Dallas Stars, the top seed, were erased by the Ducks on Monday night.

The teams remaining -- the Ducks, the Vancouver Canucks and the Wild -- do not have the reputations or the playoff experience to make them favored against either the Senators or the Devils. That's not taking anything away from what those teams have accomplished this spring. They simply do not have the aura of the Big Three -- Dallas, Detroit and Colorado -- who had won six of the last seven Cups and had represented the West in the final the past nine years.

While the developments in the West are viewed at this point as one off-year of upsets, there could be legitimate challenge to the Devils' supremacy in the East.

"In my opinion, there's a new leader in the Eastern Conference," said Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock in assessing the Senators after his club was eliminated. "These guys are at the top of the heap. We can spend a little time thinking about what we accomplished and a lot of time wondering how we are going to catch Ottawa. For us, moving forward, the question is how do we catch Ottawa because they could be a great team for a number of years.

"I see players on Ottawa who two or three years ago would have said, 'No mas.' They're not doing that anymore. They have players who are saying, 'This is it, this is our time and we're digging in.' "

The Devils quietly bring with them the best defense in the league -- they tied the Flyers for the fewest goals allowed this regular season -- and have the most experienced playoff team left in the tournament. They are the only team that is unbeaten at home. Martin Brodeur is the only goaltender left in the playoffs who has won the Stanley Cup, and forwards John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner have emerged as their best duo at both ends of the ice. Langenbrunner leads the Devils with seven playoff goals.

There's no questioning their playoff pedigree.

The Senators, meanwhile, have shaken their playoff demons of the past and have advanced to the conference final for the first time in their 11-year history. They now believe their play will improve.

"Everyone was still talking about whether we're a playoff team," said the Senators' Chris Phillips, who has emerged as one of the best defensemen in the playoffs. "We haven't seen the third round before. We wanted to get there. It will be a lot easier on the guys in this room and then maybe people will say, 'These guys are for real.' We can just go play hockey instead of having to make a statement or proving anything."

"You get to a certain point where you can relax if you can get over the hump," said Senators defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn. "People question your ability to ever do it. I think we'll finish this series, and if we're able to go to the conference final then that pressure, that hill we have to climb, will be out of the way. I think now we will be able to play the way we typically do all year. You never see us uptight or frazzled."

They just have to relax, play their game ... and avoid the potholes.

Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.