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What We Learned: Start feeling bad for anyone trying to win the Eastern Conference

By Ryan Lambert

Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

The Western Conference is a mishmash of teams that are either great or pretty good, a few teams that are very bad and then the rest are just mediocre. It wouldn't be a total surprise to see any one of five teams — Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose, Chicago, St. Louis if they can keep it up — in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Eastern Conference is more stratified.

There are three teams that are the top-flight, one that's close, then a bunch of mediocre squads and two or three bad ones. And this weekend, we saw just how tough it will be for any team that isn't based in New York City, Boston or Pennsylvania to compete for a Stanley Cup.

The Bruins' stretch of six games in nine days, five of which were on the road and only three of which they won, wrapped with a daunting pair of contests on back-to-back days against the then-Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers and the now-third-place Philadelphia Flyers.

And both these games, for entirely different reasons, showed why these are the three best teams in the conference by a considerable distance.

(Coming Up: Sidney Crosby isn't retiring; Rene Bourque's place on the Habs; the Sabres have no pilot; Taylor Hall is tougher than you; Brayden Schenn's huge hit; that Zetterberg major; Mueller's return, Savard's sad story; Hiller turns the corner; Brodeur's brilliant stop; poor Ben Bishop; celebrating Hartnell; and a three-way deal for Nash.)

Saturday's matinee affair was just a wonderfully-played game of hockey between two teams that have very workman-like approaches to the game. The Bruins did what they always do, coming at their opponents in waves, chiseling away at the face of the game, but yielded the first goal before responding themselves a short time later. In the end, the Rangers' top player, who is significantly more talented at scoring goals than anyone the Bruins have in offer, was the difference, and even then, it took a penalty that lasted nearly the entirety of overtime to complete.

There was a bit of testiness to the game, which probably played more to Boston's benefit than New York's, but overall the difference between a Ranger win and a coin-flip shootout was a goalmouth scramble finished off by a consummate goal-scorer.

And if the difference between the Bruins and Rangers is that four seconds, Sunday showed why the Flyers, even short Chris Pronger and Jaromir Jagr, are going to be at the top of the conference until the end of the season. Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell have formed some kind of exciting alchemical bond that's good enough to overcome even the stereotypically shoddiest of Ilya Bryzgalov goaltending and the work of the best goaltender of the last two years.

And this game, unlike the one a day prior, was downright nasty. Not that it should surprise anyone that a Bruins/Flyers game featured three fights, a handful of huge hits, both dirty and clean and a couple of muggings. That speaks to the dimensions they can bring to games, and still score five apiece, that other teams in this league simply cannot.

None of this is to discount the Penguins, however, especially if they can at long last get everyone back healthy. They've struggled mightily this season in dealing with that and despite it all have placed themselves pretty comfortably in a playoff position, though a lot of that has to do with Evgeni Malkin dragging the team along by the hair to six consecutive wins. If anyone in the East can knock off one of the top three teams, it's them.

The problem for teams who have pretensions of getting through to the Cup Finals, though, is that not only will you have to beat one of these teams in a seven-game series, but rather that you'll have to beat at least two of them. Because no team is perfect, all three have vulnerabilities that could be exploited. There probably is a team that can stop the Flyers from scoring a million goals. Or grind out wins against the hard-working Rangers. Or solve the Bruins' world-class goaltending.

But can you see one team doing two of those things and coming out the other side? If it's that hard for these guys to beat each other, the other teams don't have much of a chance.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Don't want to say this too loud here but Jonas Hiller has begun to get his play back together in the new year. He's lost just one game in regulation in 2012, and allowed nine goals in his last seven appearances.

Boston Bruins: Marc Savard held a press conference yesterday as he was in town to host some kids who have suffered brain trauma, and it was all very depressing.

Buffalo Sabres: Speaking of depressing, the Sabres lost to St. Louis, still have two more road games to go in this trip and are now tied for dead last in the East. Oh and also, according to Jhonas Enroth, they didn't have anyone to fly them back to the east coast. These guys should be lined up around the block to demand trades.

Calgary Flames: What a snipe by Lee Stempniak, and granted it was on Nikolai Khabibulin, for the first goal of his hat trick.

Carolina Hurricanes: The 'Canes garage sale is officially open with Alexei Ponikarovsky getting dealt to the Devils. There's a tag on Tuomo Ruutu that says "50 cents O.B.O."

Chicago Blackhawks: The bad news for the Blackhawks is that they managed only two shots in the first period of Saturday's game with Nashville (though one went in). The worse news is that either the defense or goaltending continues to be downright terrible, and they conceded five goals on 23 shots. Worst of all, Jonathan Toews got hurt in the game. He's day-to-day.

Colorado Avalanche: As Peter Mueller continued his revelatory return to the lineup, the Avs handed the Kings their first regulation loss since Jan. 7.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Good news on that ugly hit by Henrik Zetterberg: Nikita Nikitin's injury doesn't look serious. He'll miss the team's final two games before the All-Star break and be reevaluated during that time.

Dallas Stars: Has anyone at all noticed that the Stars have lost five in a row? It's been ugly, too. Just six goals scored in those, and 13 against.

Detroit Red Wings Presented by Amway: It's likely that no one was happier than Mike Commodore to see Detroit beat Columbus in a shootout on Saturday, given how things wrapped up between player and team a few years back.

Edmonton Oilers: Taylor Hall came back to the Oilers' lineup on Saturday after that horrific facial injury, and just to keep everything together, he wore a bandage under a skull cap as well as a visor. On the CBC broadcast, teammates also told of how he wanted to play one game earlier and even hopped on an exercise bike to get ready, but his stitches started leaking so they told him it was a no-go. Gutsy stuff.

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Florida Panthers: The Panthers finally won a road game (they hadn't done so in their last eight tries), but it took seven rounds of a shootout and a game against Winnipeg to get it done. It wasn't pretty on the stat sheet either, with the Panthers getting outshot 44-23. Yikes.

Los Angeles Kings: Playing on his 26th birthday, Jonathan Quick got a little testy after Dan Winnik took his leg out from under him, picking up a slashing penalty. He wasn't too happy with a reporter who asked about the incident either.

Minnesota Wild: Look at the passing on this goal by Kyle Brodziak. And if you pay very close attention, you'll hear them announcing a goal by Chad Rau from about 40 seconds earlier. In fact, it was the third Wild goal in 59 seconds. Which is a franchise record.

Montreal Canadiens: Rene Bourque scored his first goal for Montreal by doing what they got him for: going to the contested areas. Interesting, too, that Randy Cunneyworth had him playing with Tomas Plekanec and Erik Cole.

Nashville Predators: Nashville has now won 10 of its last 12 and they're only four points back of the Blackhawks with a game in hand. That's also five behind the Western Conference-leading Red Wings.
New Jersey Devils: The Devils' penalty kill allowed a pair of goals and their power play didn't score any despite being given six opportunities. A bad night on special teams by any measure.

New York Islanders: John Tavares now has points in 12 straight games after scoring both of the Islanders' goals against Carolina on Saturday. During that run, he's scored eight goals and 21 points, and now has 48 in 46 games this season.

New York Rangers: I loved the nonchalance of this rocket slapper on a bouncing puck form Marian Gaborik. "No big deal I just crushed it past Tuukka Rask."

Ottawa Senators: Strong play in net is typically the difference between regular-season success and failure these days. Not too many teams get home ice with bad goaltending. Which is why the Senators have to be feeling good about what they're getting between the pipes these days.

Philadelphia Flyers: What a freaking hit by Brayden Schenn on Steve Kampfer. Yikes.

Phoenix Coyotes: Derek Morris left Saturday's loss at Tampa early in the first period and as a result, the rest of the Coyotes' D had more work to do. Oliver Ekman-Larsson played more than 30 minutes. Michal Rozsival played about 28. Keith Yandle had an easy night logging just 24.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby isn't retiring. In case you thought he was. He's not. I'm not sure who thought that this time. But he won't retire. Not yet anyway. Probably when he's older.

San Jose Sharks: Todd McLellan is trying to figure out a way to make the Sharks' power play not be terrible. Bet the solution has a lot to do Joe Thornton, who has a goal and six assists with the man advantage after going 9-24-33 last season.

St. Louis Blues: Poor Ben Bishop has spent most of the weekend moping around after Brian Elliott signed a two-year extension. Most agree he's NHL-ready.

Tampa Bay Lightning: All that talk about Guy Boucher getting tuned out is nonsense, says everyone in the organization. Dwayne Roloson, one assumes, not so much.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Ron Wilson broke up Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul and the team lost to Montreal 3-1 so now they're back together.

Vancouver Canucks: Sami Salo is probably out through the All-Star break but at least he's back practicing. If you think about it, a concussion is probably the least severe injury he's suffered in the last few years.

Washington Capitals: The Caps were outshot badly in their previous seven games before heading to Pittsburgh yesterday. Much of that is down to Alex Ovechkin, they say, because he has just 23 in that stretch. So he went out and scored one then set up the other two, but they still only managed 20 on Marc-Andre Fleury.

Winnipeg Jets: Claude Noel refers to turnovers as "free pizzas," which I guess shouldn't be surprising with Dustin Byfuglien and Kyle Wellwood on the team.

Gold Star Award

Scott Hartnell had two goals on Saturday and that's pretty okay. Then he had a natural hat trick against the Bruins on Sunday and that's even better. Five goals in two games are good.

Minus of the Weekend

Here's one Corey Crawford would like back.

Play of the Weekend

Conversely, this was a pretty decent save from Marty Brodeur.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User "dannyboy8920" wants to make Blue Jackets fans cry.

To Toronto-
Rick Nash
Samuel Pahlsson

To Tampa Bay-
Luke Schenn
Ben Scrivens

To Columbus-
Brett Connolly
Mikhail Grabovski
Brendan Mikkelson
1st(tor)

Signoff

Bastard from a basket!

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness rather infrequently over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don't you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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