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Capitals, Penguins, Bruins expected to battle for Eastern Conference crown

The Canadian Press
By:
The Hockey News
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Capitals, Penguins, Bruins expected to battle for Eastern Conference crown

The Canadian Press
By:

The Washington Capitals are looking to continue a run of regular-season dominance, the Pittsburgh Penguins are hoping to get back on top and the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins are out to show last year was no fluke.

The powerhouse teams in the Eastern Conference remain unchanged. Here's a team-by-team look at all 15 of them, listed in predicted order of finish:

1. Washington Capitals

Last season: 48-23-11, 107 points, top seed in the East, lost in second round to Tampa Bay.

Breakdown: The top team in the conference two years running added to its arsenal in the off-season. Tomas Vokoun's arrival gives the Caps a proven veteran in goal—something they lacked last season when Michael Neuvirth split duties with the departed Semyon Varlamov—and was accompanied with the additions of veterans Roman Hamrlik, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer. It will be interesting to see how captain Alex Ovechkin bounces back from his worst offensive season in the NHL. The expectations remain high in the U.S. capital and rightly so.

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2. Pittsburgh Penguins

Last season: 49-25-8, 106 points, fourth seed in the East, lost in first round to Tampa Bay.

Breakdown: Comebacks will be a common theme at Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins are hoping to have Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby back on the ice together soon. Malkin already appears to have put major knee surgery behind him while Crosby continues to show signs of progress in his recovery from a concussion. Pittsburgh finished with 106 points despite playing large chunks of last season without the two dynamic centres and should remain among the NHL's elite, particularly if it has better luck on the health front. This could be a serious Stanley Cup contender.

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3. Boston Bruins

Last season: 46-25-11, 103 points, third seed in the East, won Stanley Cup.

Breakdown: There were no significant roster changes to the team that lifted the Stanley Cup in June, but the Bruins face pretty long odds of repeating that feat. Championship hangovers are notorious in the NHL and the Bruins partied as hard as anyone after surviving three series that went to a Game 7. The challenge might be toughest for Tim Thomas, who is coming off one of the finest seasons by a goaltender in league history. Pesky forward Brad Marchand will be another player to watch after a standout performance in the championship series against Vancouver. Boston remains the class of the Northeast Division and should be a top playoff seed come the spring.

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4. Tampa Bay Lightning

Last season: 46-25-11, 103 points, fifth seed in the East, lost in third round to Boston.

Breakdown: Overachievers in the eyes of many last season, the Lightning will face heightened expectations now. Steve Yzerman's team should be more than capable of handling them with Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier flanked by a capable group of defencemen. No. 1 goaltender Dwayne Roloson turns 42 in October, but he showed no signs of slowing down during a run to the Eastern Conference final last season. Innovative coach Guy Boucher should be able to get even more out of this group in his second year at the NHL level.

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5. New Jersey Devils

Last season: 38-39-5, 81 points, 11th seed in the East, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: If not for a disastrous start to last season, New Jersey would have been a scary playoff opponent in the spring. The Devils were arguably the NHL's best team in the second half of last year despite falling short of the post-season for the first time since 1996. In the big picture, it will end up being a brief blip as New Jersey should rebound with a healthy Zach Parise back in the lineup and the addition of impressive rookie defenceman Adam Larsson. A motivated Ilya Kovalchuk will help, too. Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur enters the final year of his contract and may retire after the season.

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6. Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 43-29-10, 96 points, seventh seed in the East, lost in first round to Philadelphia.

Breakdown: After buying the Sabres earlier this year, Terry Pegula just kept on writing cheques. The team was a big spender over the summer, acquiring Ville Leino, Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff—not to mention sinking millions into a massive dressing room overhaul. There are no glaring holes in this Sabres team, especially if Ryan Miller plays up to his Vezina Trophy standard of 2009-10, making them a squad to keep an eye on. Look for defenceman Tyler Myersto have a solid season after enduring some sophomore struggles.

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7. N.Y. Rangers

Last season: 44-33-5, 93 points, eighth seed in the East, lost in first round to Washington.

Breakdown: Brad Richards is set to take Broadway by storm, giving the Rangers the kind of playmaking centre they've lacked. He's reunited with coach John Tortorella—they won a Stanley Cup together in Tampa—and should have a major impact. The season starts with some concerns over the health of top defenceman Marc Staal, who inadvertently played through a concussion at the end of last year and was still feeling the affects in training camp. His absence will be significant, especially if it's prolonged. But this still looks like a playoff team.

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8. Montreal Canadiens

Last season: 44-30-8, 96 points, sixth seed in the East, lost in first round to Boston.

Breakdown: The Habs find themselves on the playoff bubble once again. With Roman Hamrlik departed for Washington and Andrei Markov still fighting injuries, questions remain on the blue-line. Fortunately, goaltender Carey Price is coming off his best NHL season and has shown he can shoulder the load as the No. 1 guy. Up front, Erik Cole joins a forward group that experienced some offensive struggles last year. Coming off a subpar 19-goal season, Mike Cammalleri is a candidate to put up much bigger numbers.

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9. Philadelphia Flyers

Last season: 47-23-12, 106 points, second seed in the East, lost in second round to Tampa Bay.

Breakdown: It might have been the first time in NHL history a team traded away its top two centres on the same afternoon. The departures of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter will almost certainly be felt this season even though they yielded a number of talented young players in return. While the expensive acquisition of Ilya Bryzgalov gives Philadelphia the top-flight goaltending it has been missing, the team is going to take a step back offensively—unless Jaromir Jagr can magically turn back the clock. The Flyers will be the biggest surprise in the conference ... for all the wrong reasons.

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10. Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season: 37-34-11, 85 points, 10th seed in the East, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: With the franchise's playoff drought having already been stretched to seven years, the city is desperate for the return of winning hockey. No one feels that more than coach Ron Wilson, who heads into the final year of his contract under pressure to make it happen. They should be in the mix if James Reimer plays as well as he did last season, when the unheralded goaltender claimed the No. 1 job in the second half. Brian Burke thinks his team will be as good as any defensively, but it's unclear if there's enough talent up front to fill the net.

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11. Carolina Hurricanes

Last season: 40-31-11, 91 points, ninth seed in the East, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: The playoff race went right down to the wire with the Rangers sneaking past Carolina on the final weekend of the regular season. Expect them to be in the hunt again. General manager Jim Rutherford—an excellent bargain hunter—bolstered his lineup with veterans Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and Brian Boucher over the summer. A player worth keeping an eye on is sophomore Jeff Skinner, the NHL's reigning rookie of the year after a 30-goal season. The presence of an experience backup goaltender in Boucher should allow Cam Ward to rest a little more often.

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12. N.Y. Islanders

Last season: 30-39-13, 73 points, 14th seed in the East, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: Life seems to be looking up a bit on Long Island, where John Tavares heads into his third NHL season poised to take another step ahead. He leads an intriguing group of young forwards that includes Michael Grabner and rookie Nino Niederreiter. Defenceman Mark Streit, recently named captain, will also be back after sitting out all of last season with a shoulder injury. Goaltending remains something of a question mark, with Rick DiPietro, Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov all vying for starts.

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13. Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 34-36-12, 80 points, 12th seed in the East, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: Can an entire city's enthusiasm have a positive affect on what happens on the ice? That remains the biggest unanswered question surrounding the reborn Jets. For all intent and purpose, this is the same group of players that finished 12th in the Eastern Conference as the Atlanta Thrashers a year ago. That includes promising youngster Evander Kane, gritty captain Andrew Ladd and big blue-liner Dustin Byfuglien, but also the same defencemen and goaltenders that allowed the second highest number of goals against last year. It's going to take some time for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach Claude Noel to turn this into a playoff team.

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14. Florida Panthers

Last season: 30-40-12, 72 points, 15th seed in the East, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: Needing to spend money to get to the salary floor, general manager Dale Tallon completely overhauled his roster this summer. One of the biggest challenges for new head coach Kevin Dineen will be getting his team on the same page—no small task given he'll have as many as 10 new players in the lineup on opening night. While the changes have created some optimism for hockey fans in South Florida, this team will likely take time to grow together. It's looking like a 12th straight season out of the playoffs.

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15. Ottawa Senators

Last season: 32-40-10, 74 points, 13th seed in the East, missed playoffs.

Breakdown: There's bound to be some growing pains with a rebuilding project that started midway through last season. A number of young players are being asked to fill roles under new coach Paul MacLean, complementing the handful of remaining veterans. Goaltender Craig Anderson played well after being acquired at the trade deadline and could be a bright spot. Captain Daniel Alfredsson, the team's longest-tenured player, is back at age 38 after being sidelined with a back injury last year. Despite his steadying presence, this is a team in transition.

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Capitals, Penguins, Bruins expected to battle for Eastern Conference crown