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Eastern Conference preview

September 28, 2007|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Come June, the Stanley Cup playoffs might be in a New York state of mind.

Only this time, it may not be in the western outpost that is Buffalo, where thousands of rabid Sabres fans watched postseason games in the city's downtown plaza.

Not this time. The plucky Sabres were the NHL's feel-good story the last two seasons. The real action now might be smack in the middle of Manhattan.

The New York Rangers are relevant again and Madison Square Garden is where the excitement is. Consecutive playoff appearances after a seven-year drought might just mean better days are coming.

Last year, the Rangers stumbled for four months before pulling it together in March and April. And then they waltzed past Atlanta in the first round and had Buffalo on the ropes until Chris Drury's tying goal in Game 5 with 7.7 seconds left turned the series around.

So how did the Rangers deal with their playoff exit? They went out and snatched Drury from their small-market neighbors to the tune of $32.25 million while also luring playmaker Scott Gomez from New Jersey for a cool $51.5 million.

In the pre-lockout past, the Rangers would be lambasted -- and rightfully so -- for foolishly throwing large sums of money at free agents in a desperate attempt to win.

Only these moves appear to boost an already solid team. Drury does everything on the ice and is as clutch as they come. Gomez knows how to win from his days with the Devils.

Add in resident superstar Jaromir Jagr, a tough war horse in Brendan Shanahan, an underappreciated, no-name defense and a goalie for the long haul in Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers may have found the ultimate recipe.

Of course, there are those in Ottawa, Pittsburgh and, yes, Buffalo who might have something to say about who emerges out of the East.

In predicted order of finish, with the top eight teams qualifying for the playoffs:

1 Ottawa Senators. There was joy at last in Canada's capital until the Senators were exposed by the Ducks with the Cup on the line. Still, there are few question marks and the Senators play in the East, where every other team has major question marks.

2 New York Rangers. Not since the days of Mark Messier have the Rangers generated this much excitement on Broadway. Add in Drury and Gomez and, with the Knicks a mess, hockey might grab the N.Y. headlines -- until spring training. And they are in a tough division.

3 Carolina Hurricanes. OK, they didn't flop like Edmonton, but the Cup hangover was enough for them to miss the playoffs. GM Jim Rutherford didn't panic and blow up this injury-plagued team. Gritty captain Rod Brind'Amour will lead them back to win so-so Southeast.

4 Buffalo Sabres. Losing their heart and soul in Drury and watching Daniel Briere take big money to go to Philadelphia would crush most teams, but the deep Sabres won't fall as far as most think, not with Ryan Miller in net and Lindy Ruff still behind the bench.

5 Pittsburgh Penguins. Reigning MVP Sidney Crosby got his first taste of the playoffs and it won't be his last. Networks want "Sid the Kid" playing for the Cup but one look at that Swiss cheese defense says wait another year. But they'll send Mellon Arena out with a bang.

6 New Jersey Devils. No Niedermayer. No Scott Stevens. And now, no Gomez or Brian Rafalski. The list goes on and yet the Devils will make the playoffs again. Why? Martin Brodeur and Lou Lamoriello. Enough said.

7 Florida Panthers. Few realize they went 15-6-5 after Jan. 7. Fewer in the Sunshine State know they exist. Might be worth a look with new goalie Tomas Vokoun and a solid defense backing captain Olli Jokinen and future star Nathan Horton.

8 Toronto Maple Leafs. Maple Leafs fans are vocal and delusional in always expecting to win the Cup. Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala were nice pickups and Mats Sundin will squeeze them into the playoffs, but that's about it. Make it 41 years without a Cup.

9 Tampa Bay Lightning. Who wouldn't want Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle on their team? But they aren't paid to stop the puck from going into the net. When will they trade for Ilya Bryzgalov?

10 Philadelphia Flyers. GM Paul Holmgren revitalized the Flyers by bringing in Briere and pillaging Nashville for Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. But even with the talented Timonen, the Flyers are still shaky on D.

11 Montreal Canadiens. There are good young players -- Chris Higgins, Michael Ryder, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latrendresse -- and All-Star goalie Cristobal Huet. Alas, they don't conjure up Guy Lafleur or Patrick Roy. Nothing special here.

12 Atlanta Thrashers. Any potential buzz was lost in an ugly playoff debut against the Rangers. This just in: They're not any better, and star Marian Hossa can become a free agent in '08. Not a peachy scenario for GM Don Waddell and Coach Bob Hartley.

13 Washington Capitals. Spent summer getting more talent around Alexander Ovechkin and making playoffs is a realistic goal. They'd better improve soon. Longtime goalie Olaf Kolzig is 37 and Ovechkin will be a restricted free agent in '09.

14 New York Islanders. This team was a nice little story last season. Ted Nolan proved again how good a coach he was and they won a shootout to make the playoffs on the final day. And then they lose Blake and Ryan Smyth. Nice while it lasted.

15 Boston Bruins. Claude Julien makes it three coaches in three years for this once-proud franchise. They can't score and, even with hulking Zdeno Chara, can't play defense. Why would Julien want to take on this moribund mess?

--

eric.stephens@latimes.com

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