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St. Louis leaves East teams singing the Blues

by John Kreiser
The NHL's realignment next season likely will mean the end of the East-West interconference setup that's been used since 2005. For the Eastern teams, that's probably a good thing.

As they have in every season since play resumed after the work stoppage six seasons ago, Western Conference teams are having their way with their Eastern Conference counterparts.

In all, 117 of this season's 270 interconference games are in the books, and the West owns a 62-37-18 record (.530 winning percentage; .520 percentage of points awarded). The East is 55-41-21 (.470/.480).

The .530 winning percentage is a slight bump upwards from the West's .526 showing last season. In the six seasons under the current format, Western teams never have won less than the 52.2 percent of interconference games they took in 2009-10.


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No team has been better at beating the other conference than the St. Louis Blues, whose 4-1 win against the New York Rangers on Thursday improved their record against the East this season to 7-0-1. The Blues are the only team this season to get at least one point in every game against the opposite conference. It's the second season in a row the Blues have dominated the East -- they were 11-4-3 last season, tied with Columbus for the second-best interconference record.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have lost four of six meetings with Western teams, despite beating Calgary 5-4 in overtime on Thursday. The Southeast is the only division with a sub-.500 mark in interconference play -- a combined 12-17-2, and only the last-place Carolina Hurricanes (3-2-1) have won as many as half their games against the West.

Sunrise, sunset -- Shootouts at home continue to be a nightmare for the Florida Panthers.

The Panthers fell to 1-4 in tiebreakers at the BankAtlantic Center this season on Tuesday when they were beaten 3-2 by New Jersey. Florida has scored once in 14 home shootout attempts this season and not at all in its last 12 tries, while Panthers goaltenders have been beaten on six of the last 13 attempts, including two of three on Tuesday.

The loss was the Panthers' 32nd in 40 home shootouts since the NHL adopted the tiebreaker in 2005, by far the most of any team in its own building.

Change of scenery -- Maybe all Ilya Kovalchuk and Semyon Varlamov needed to improve their performance in shootouts was a new home.

Despite being one of the NHL's top scorers, Kovalchuk was just 6-for-30 in the shootout when he arrived in New Jersey in a trade on Feb. 4, 2010. But going to one of the NHL's most successful shootout teams must have been a tonic -- he's 7-for-13 since coming to the Devils, including 5-for-6 this season. 

Varlamov was just 4-6 in 10 shootouts with Washington before being dealt to Colorado during the summer. And while his goals-against average with his new team is 3.14 and his save percentage is below .900, he's been money in the bank in the tiebreaker. He won for the fifth time in as many tries by beating San Jose on Tuesday as the Avs improved to 16-1 in their last 17 shootouts since December 2009.  In fact, Varlamov's .875 save percentage in shootouts this season is almost as good as his .896 mark during regulation and overtime.

Mike Smith
Goalie - PHX
RECORD: 14-9-3
GAA: 2.53 | SVP: 0.920
Smith's struggles -- The play of goaltender Mike Smith was a big reason for the Phoenix Coyotes' early success -- and his struggles during the past couple of weeks are a big reason they started to backslide before beating Edmonton 4-2 on Thursday.

Smith entered the first weekend of December among the NHL's leaders with a 2.08 GAA and .936 save percentage -- numbers befitting a goaltender with a 12-5-3 record. But in his next five starts, he allowed 19 goals while going 1-4-0 (the win was a 4-3 shootout victory in Chicago in which he blew a 3-0 lead). He surrendered four goals in all four losses -- despite being lifted after 20 minutes or less in two of them. He rebounded a bit Thursday, stopping 18 of 20 shots in a 4-2 win against the Oilers.

The four games with more than three goals allowed are more than any other goaltender in the NHL this month -- and one more than he had in 20 appearances during the first eight weeks of the season. By allowing 19 goals on 111 shots in the five games, he saw his GAA rise to 2.55 and his save percentage drop from .936 to .921.

Thomas' promises --
The Ottawa Senators couldn't have been very happy when they saw Boston coach Claude Julien start Tuukka Rask in goal against Los Angeles on Tuesday, because that meant they would see Tim Thomas on Wednesday -- and beating Thomas is something the Senators haven't been very good at.

Sure enough, Thomas stood tall against a 49-shot barrage and carried the Bruins to a 5-2 win. He's now 21-8-2 with a 1.95 goals-against average and six shutouts all-time against Ottawa. Thanks to Thomas, the Senators now hold the unwanted distinction of having taken the most shots by a team in a loss this season (Columbus and Philadelphia had 48 in losses last month).

The 49 shots were the most allowed by the Bruins since they surrendered 52 in a 7-4 loss at Montreal on Nov. 17, 2007. The 47 saves were the most by a Boston goaltender in a regulation win since the NHL began counting shots on goal, and they tied Vancouver's Cory Schneider for by a goaltender in a win this season -- Schneider stopped 47 shots in a 4-1 win at Columbus on Nov. 29.
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