NHL Makes a Triumphant Return; Eastern Conference Full of Contenders

At the very end of winter break, hockey fans across North America were given a late Christmas present by the NHL. The league finally came to an agreement for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL Player’s Association. This means that hockey is finally back, and the NHL got underway this weekend with an entertaining and intense set of opening-weekend games to begin the shortened 48-game season. Now that the season has finally started, fans can start making their predictions for their favorite teams and players.

This year’s Eastern Conference is chock-full of Stanley Cup contenders. From Boston to Carolina, the East has seen several already great teams improve during the lengthened offseason.

Let’s start in the Atlantic Division, arguably the hardest division to win in the NHL. The ever dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins, despite the loss of third line center Jordan Staal to Carolina this offseason, still have most of their legendary firepower with centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang. With plenty of experience under their belt, the Pens will definitely continue to make noise this year.

Speaking of potent offense, look to the New York Rangers corps of forwards to blossom this year. With the addition of all-star Rick Nash to the roster in the offseason, along with emerging young talent like Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, and Chris Kreider. Reigning Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist is still manning the crease, and with the same exact defensive corps returning (which allowed less goals than any other team in the Eastern Conference last season,) the Rangers are looking pretty serious this year.

While the Penguins and Rangers are the two favorites from the Atlantic Division this year, no team in the division can be counted out. The Philadelphia Flyers boast one of the best offenses in the East, the New Jersey Devils are the reigning Eastern Conference Champions (after defeating the Rangers in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season,) and the New York Islanders, despite not making the playoffs in several years, are brimming with talented youth and are due for a breakout year.

In the Northeast Division, look to the hometown Bruins to continue to dominate. While the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, and Ottawa Senators are all solid, young, teams looking to build off of inspiring performances last season and constructive offseasons, none of these teams are quite ready to challenge Boston for dominance in the Northeast Division. With the exception of losing starting goalie Tim Thomas in the offseason, the Bruins are essentially the same exact team that dominated Northeast Division play last season. And with Thomas gone, the Bruins have turned to former backup Tuukka Rask to take over the starting role. Rask is a phenomenal young talent, and was probably ready for the starting job a couple of seasons ago. He has been patiently waiting in the wings for the older Thomas to move on, and his day has finally dawned in Boston.

While often lambasted as the weakest division in the East, if not the entire NHL, the Southeast may not be exactly what meets the eye this season. The Carolina Hurricanes did a great job of stacking up on offense in the offseason, acquiring center Jordan Staal (who will now be playing alongside his superstar brother, Eric) and high scoring but enigmatic winger Alexander Semin from their division rivals the Washington Capitals. Team management did a great job at plugging up some glaring holes, and with Stanley Cup Champion goaltender Cam Ward between the pipes, the ‘Canes are looking to do some serious damage in the Southeast.

After Carolina, the Florida Panthers are probably a safe bet for division runner-up. The Panthers surprised everyone by not only making the playoffs last year (and winning the Souftheast,) but also by taking the heavily favored Devils to double overtime of game seven before finally succumbing to the future Eastern Conference Champions. The team only improved in the offseason, taking a chance on veteran forward Alex Kovalev by signing him to a one year contract. The deal has already paid dividends, with Kovalev posting three points (1G, 2A) in his first two games with the club, while looking like one of the clubs strongest forwards and proving his stickhandling skills have not declined in age.

While the Washington Capitals have been the dominant force in the Southeast since the rise of Alex Ovechkin, it might be safe to say their time of absolute dominance is gone. The team has fallen below expectations the last couple of seasons, going through coaching issues, injury problems, and some enigmatic seasons from Ovechkin. While they certainly shouldn’t be ruled out, don’t expect the Capitals to accomplish anything extraordinary this season.

Despite only being a 48-game schedule, this season promises to be an exciting and captivating one. Just remember, these are only predictions… in hockey, like all other sports, predictions mean absolutely nothing and anything can happen.

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