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NHL PREVIEW / EASTERN CONFERENCE

Alex Ovechkin and Capitals eager to challenge for Stanley Cup

The Capitals are looking to rebound following last season's first-round playoff exit. Pittsburgh and Boston figure to push them for first place in the Eastern Conference.

October 05, 2010|By Helene Elliott

EASTERN CONFERENCE TEAM PREVIEWS

In predicted order of rankings (division leaders are 1-2-3)

Washington Capitals

2009-10 record: 54-15-13, 121 points.

Power play: 25.2% (first). Penalty killing: 78.8% (25th).

Team goals-against average: 2.72 (16th).

Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin 50-59—109.

Outlook: They squandered a 3-1 series lead and were upset by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, which should fire them up this season. Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom (33 goals, 68 assists) were the only teammates to exceed 100 points last season, boosting the Caps to a league-leading 318 goals. Mike Green led NHL defensemen in scoring with 19 goals and 76 points, but his defensive lapses are frequent. Their only key change is in goal, where Jose Theodore is gone. Semyon Varlamov, who played 26 games last season, is expected to take over.

Pittsburgh Penguins

2009-10 record: 47-28-7, 101 points.

Power play: 17.2% (19th). Penalty killing: 84.1% (ninth).

Team goals-against average: 2.82 (20th).

Leading scorer: Sidney Crosby 51-58—109.

Outlook: Their defense of their Stanley Cup title ended in a second-round upset loss to Montreal, leading to changes. They lost power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar to free agency but recouped by signing steady Paul Mara and Zbynek Michalek. They also signed center/winger Mike Comrie to give them flexibility up front. Crosby had a hip flexor problem during training camp, but it wasn't considered serious. The Penguins have left the Igloo for the new Consol Center, and it's not difficult to picture them furnishing it with a Stanley Cup banner.

Boston Bruins

2009-10 record: 39-30-13, 91 points.

Power play: 16.6% (23rd). Penalty killing: 86.4% (third).

Team goals-against average: 2.28 (second).

Leading scorer: Patrick Bergeron 19-33—52.

Outlook: Recurring post- concussion problems will keep the gifted Marc Savard out of the lineup indefinitely, a tough blow. But the Bruins have beefed up an offense that was the league's second-worst last season. No. 1 overall draft pick Tyler Seguin will get a lot of ice time and they're counting on a rebirth for right wing Nathan Horton, who never quite lived up to being the No. 3 pick in the 2003 draft and might benefit from leaving Florida. Tim Thomas (2.56 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) and Tuukka Rask (1.97, .931) were sensational last season. They should have a bit more breathing room.

Philadelphia Flyers

2009-10 record: 41-35-6, 88 points.

Power play: 21.4% (third). Penalty killing: 83.0% (11th).

Team goals-against average: 2.68 (15th).

Leading scorer: Mike Richards 31-31—62.

Outlook: After making the playoffs on the last day of the season, the Flyers upset the New Jersey Devils, erased a 3-0 deficit against Boston, beat Montreal easily and took the more talented Chicago Blackhawks to six games in the Cup finals. They had grit and skill on every line and a strong defense led by Chris Pronger, who shut down opponents' top scorers. Pronger had knee surgery over the summer, but is expected to be ready for the season opener. The Flyers haven't changed much but will be without goalie Michael Leighton for a month while he recovers from a bulging disk in his back. Brian Boucher is expected to start with promising rookie Sergei Bobrovsky as the backup.

New Jersey Devils

22009-10 record: 48-27-7, 103 points.

Power play: 18.7% (11th). Penalty killing: 82.8% (13th).

Team goals-against average: 2.24 (first).

Leading scorer: Ilya Kovalchuk 41-44—85.

Outlook: They won the battle for Kovalchuk but lost a first-round draft pick and were fined $3 million for salary cap circumvention in their first offer to him, worth $102 million over 17 years. The final deal, for $100 million over 15 years, is a salary cap hit of $6.667 million per season. Ouch. He has scored 50-plus goals twice but that's a huge cap hit. The Devils made two other moves that made more sense, signing free-agent defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, and both will have to help shield Martin Brodeur (2.24, .916) and prevent him from seeing too many dangerous shots.

Tampa Bay Lightning

2009-10 record: 34-16-12, 80 points.

Power play: 19.3% (eighth). Penalty killing: 80.1% (22nd).

Team goals-against average: 3.03 (27th).

Leading scorer: Steven Stamkos 51-44—95.

Outlook: Two guys named Steve — third-year center Stamkos and first-year general manager Yzerman — and a guy named Guy (Boucher, the coach) have shown signs they're going to turn the Lightning around. Stamkos blossomed last season and Yzerman provided offensive help by acquiring winger Simon Gagne from Philadelphia. Boucher plans to reunite center Vincent Lecavalier with winger Martin St. Louis, whose presence Lecavalier missed while scoring only 24 goals, his fewest since 2001-02. Yzerman is a winner and can re-establish a winning culture.

Buffalo Sabres

2009-10 record: 45-27-10, 100 points.

Power play: 17.6% (17th). Penalty killing: 86.6% (second).

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