Penguins notebook: Opinions mixed on East vs. West

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LOS ANGELES — Even within the Penguins locker room, there is debate about whether there is a style difference between Eastern and Western Conference teams in the NHL.

“There are 30 teams that all have their own identity,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said before the Penguins played the Los Angeles Kings late Thursday night at Staples Center.

“If you try to separate the East and West, I think you’re making too much of it. Every [general manager] is trying to construct their own team. I think every GM has their own style.”

Fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen was more inclined to agree with the perception that the Eastern teams are more high-scoring, offense-oriented, while Western clubs are more punishing physically and more defense-oriented.

“It seems that way,” he said. “It seems to be lower-scoring games on average out here [in the West]. A lot tighter checking. I don’t know if it’s just personnel or the teams’ philosophy on how they want to play the game or what, but it does seem to be more physical and a lot less space to create offense out here.”

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma called the perceived style in the West “heavy,” and while he doesn’t admit to seeing a defined divide between the conferences, he figures the best teams in the West right now do follow a pattern.

“I think the top six or maybe seven teams [in the West] are heavy to play against,” Bylsma said. “If you have to play Anaheim, L.A., San Jose, St. Louis and then Chicago, that’s a tough stretch of heavy games. Every night you’d be playing against good teams.

“I think that is harder about the West right now than the East. We’ve seen it. We’ve played Anaheim and San Jose. If you play those teams several times and back it up with L.A., you’re playing a tough schedule.”

That might lead to a debate over which style is best — and the Penguins weren’t biting.

“I think you need a bigger sample size,” Orpik said.

The Penguins have been strong against Western teams all season and entered the game against the Kings 10-3-1 in interconference games, including wins against San Jose and Anaheim and a loss against St. Louis.

In the early weeks of the season, the West heavily dominated the East, with the Penguins offering a rare exception. It has evened out a bit the past few months. In 254 interconference games before Thursday, the West had picked up 361 points, the East 292 points.

“The West was beating on the East early on in the season,” Orpik said. “I think it’s kind of turned.”

Taking cues from the best

Niskanen is having his best NHL season.

Going into Thursday’s game, he had matched a career high with seven goals, was leading Penguins defensemen with 30 points and leading the NHL with a plus-minus rating of plus-29. He is one of six Penguins who have played in all 55 games.

That doesn’t mean he’s above a little larceny behind the scenes.

“You’re never too old to learn,” Niskanen said. “Teams do it. Players do it.

“You steal stuff from other guys. We see something on the power play that [Steven] Stamkos and [Martin] St. Louis do [for Tampa Bay], and we try it and see if we can make it work. Teams are always trying to find ways to do things. Teams steal stuff from each other all the time.”

The great outdoors

Several Penguins remain from the teams that played outdoors in one or both of the club’s Winter Classic appearances in 2008 and 2011. They will move outdoors again March 1 when they meet the Blackhawks at Chicago’s Soldier Field as part of the league’s Stadium Series.

For those Penguins who haven’t played an NHL game outside, Kings defenseman Drew Doughty can offer a primer.

Other than the outcome — a 3-0 loss against Anaheim — Doughty’s account of Los Angeles’ Stadium Series game Saturday at Dodger Stadium is upbeat.

“It was a lot of fun,” Doughty said.” It was great to take it all in. Walking out to the ice, seeing all those fans there, it was an amazing experience.

“The first couple of shifts are a little weird because no one’s surrounding you. [The fans] are so far away. It’s kind of hard to see the puck right off the bat. But after that, it’s fine. It’s just a normal game.

“It’s just fun. You want to win the game very badly. We happened to lose it, but we’ll move on. We still had a great experience. Hopefully, we get to play in another one.”

The game at Dodger Stadium was something of an experiment gone right for the NHL, holding an outdoor game in a warm climate.

“They’re probably going to have way different conditions than us,” Doughty said of the Penguins and Blackhawks.


Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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