With a deep list of contenders, is the Eastern Conference the one to beat?

Hot and not

LundqvistHenrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
Lundqvist put up a wall against the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, stopping all 34 shots he saw en route to a 3-0 victory.

HornqvistPatric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins
Hornqvist was on the ice for all three Rangers goals Wednesday, and now has just one goal in his past 10 games.

Has the Eastern Conference finally caught up to the West?

Pierre LeBrun@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Are we continuing to see the shift in the NHL's power balance from the West to the East? After years of the West being the best, I remember writing a piece last March about how it appeared that the Eastern Conference was closing the gap on the West in terms of the competitive balance. I think we're seeing more of that this season. Let's look at the wild-card races to begin with: The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins hold those two spots with 62 and 61 points, respectively. Compare that to the wild-card placeholders in the West: the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche have 59 points apiece. The ninth-place New Jersey Devils in the East have 61 points, and 10th-place Montreal has 58. Of course, the true measure of excellence for me has always been the quality of the elite teams, which is where the West has been dominant for a good decade. When you're talking about veritable Cup contenders, I'd give you the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings at the top in the West, followed a notch below by the Anaheim Ducks, then another notch down are the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. In the East? The Washington Capitals stand alone as the top Cup contender, followed by the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, then the Rangers. I would still give the West a slight edge in this department, but the gap is closing for sure. Thoughts?

Scott Burnside@ESPN_Burnside: Pierre, I have thought this very thing for much of the past couple of months, but did not raise the issue for fear of sending you into a dark spiral of despair given your longstanding love affair with the West. And I think your point is a good one that the shifting balance of power is a top-to-bottom thing. By almost any measuring stick, the Capitals are the NHL's best team. They're a force. Chicago and Los Angeles are close, yes, but still behind the Caps at this stage (which, as we know, means squat). For me, it's been the failure of Western Conference teams to evolve that signals this shifting in the balance of power. The Avs, Predators, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, and Calgary Flames are all teams that seemed ready to at least knock on the door of the upper echelon, but not so much anymore. What does it mean? When you play better competition night in and night out, you are better prepared come playoff time. The Kings and Blackhawks emerged battle-tested from the West in recent years through repeated competition against other similar teams. Now, we're seeing that shifting to the East, at least for the time being.

Craig Custance@CraigCustance: Scott, I agree there has been a disappointing lack of growth from the West's middle class, but if that's how we're defining the strength of each conference, I'd still take most of those teams in a playoff series against the middle of the East. Minnesota has 56 points, same as the Ottawa Senators. Give me the Wild in five in that series. Nashville has 58 points, same as the Canadiens. I'll take the Predators in five, thank you. Colorado vs. New Jersey? Put me down for the Avalanche. Same with the elite. I picked the Capitals to win the Cup in the preseason and I'm not changing that, but after that I'd still prefer the Blackhawks and Kings over the Lightning, Panthers, Rangers and any other team we want to put in that class in the East. I'm not sure there's a team outside of the Capitals I could see coming out of the Western side of the playoff bracket. That's my long-winded way of saying I respectfully disagree.

Joe McDonald@ESPNJoeyMac: This is the season the Cup comes back East. No doubt the Western Conference is strong and stacked with Cup contenders, but this season an Eastern Conference team will hoist the Cup for the first time since the Boston Bruins won it in 2011. The Capitals look like a strong contender, especially with Braden Holtby between the pipes, but we all know a team's regular-season success doesn't always translate into a postseason run. The Lightning and the Panthers are showing signs of being teams that can handle a deep playoff run. With Lundqvist in net, you always have to believe the Rangers have a chance, too. Then there are those gritty teams in the East that have the ability to make some noise, including the Bruins, Penguins and New York Islanders. Oh, and don't forget about the Detroit Red Wings. I'm being completely objective here, and I do think the Cup comes back East in the spring of 2016.

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