2011 NHL Eastern Conference Quick Picks: Who's In?

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2011 NHL Eastern Conference Quick Picks: Who's In?
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The 2010-2011 NHL season is finally underway and so come the questions of the season.

Did Atlanta make enough changes to put them in playoff contention? Will Boston’s scoring go down after losing Marc Savard? Can Philadelphia pull another Cinderella story at the end of the season?

According to the NHL commercial, these questions will become answers. These answers will ultimately display themselves in the final standings on April 10, 2011, the final day of the season.

Looking into the Eastern Conference, here’s how the final standings of playoff contenders will stack up:

1. Washington Capitals

Coming off of big seasons, expect Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to lead the Caps to another Southeast Division title by outscoring their opponents. Goalie Michal Neuvirth received the call up this season after Jose Theodore left in free agency, a big gamble for the Caps as both Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov are 22-year-old goalies.

The Caps were relatively quiet in free agency, neglecting to solve their problems on defense. Unless they decide to step it up, expect the Caps to continue their dominance in the league until mid-April rolls around.

2. New Jersey Devils

Despite the Devil’s defensive-minded style, this roster has players who can score in Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Travis Zajac. The overall depth in scorers is anything but impressive, but it is their defense that wins them games.

The Devils had the highest goals against per game average and this is due to their strength on defense and in goal, buffered by the addition of shot blocker Anton Volchenkov. Martin Brodeur lead the league in games played with 77. If MacLean benched him more, the Devils can make it beyond the second round.

 

3. Boston Bruins

Already the lowest scoring team in the league last season, Boston seemed doomed when Savard’s return was delayed. However, expectations are high for 2010 second overall pick Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton, acquired in a trade from the Florida Panthers.

Boston will receive much help from goalie Tuuka Rask, one of if not the best goalie in the Eastern Conference. Always led by the monstrous defenseman Zdeno Chara, whose performance will improve after last season, expect the Bs to bounce back from their historic choke job in the playoffs to lead the division.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens may have made the deal of the season by signing Mike Comrie to a one-year $500,000 deal. Along with Arron Asham, the Pens have brought to the team some cheap wingers to complement their strength down the middle. Adding Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek on defense, the team’s weakest position last season, should answer any concerns about deficiencies in the back.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has demonstrated in the preseason that last season was a fluke performance on his part and is ready to dominate the crease. Overall, a solid lineup and there’s no more target on their backs from their Cup win, however, avoiding injuries will be the Pens’ most difficult task.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

 

After a remarkable run in the playoffs, the Flyers retained great depth in their offense and defense, but goaltending was the big question mark. With Michael Leighton, arguably the playoff MVP for the team, sidelined with an injury, the Flyers must look to their backups.

Looking at Thursday’s game against the Pens, the Flyers may have found a star in Russian rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovksy. It’s uncertain how the Flyers will respond to their loss in the Cup Finals, but they will remain neck-and-neck with the Pens toward the end of the season. I feel a 2009 Quarterfinal rematch between these teams.

 

6. Buffalo Sabres

No major changes to this lineup. Rob Niedermayer up front and Jordan Leopold in back brings two smart hockey players, but this team is really all about Vezina winner Ryan Miller. He manages to keep Buffalo in games with his acrobatics in net, but without much help up front, his hard work can be overlooked.

With Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, and Jason Pominville as the scoring stars who average about 65 points a season, scoring and winning games could prove to be a challenge. Because of that, Buffalo will fall in the standings because other teams have significantly improved their rosters, moreso than Buffalo.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning

With Steven Stamkos fresh off his Rocket Richard Trophy, he should be prepared for his encore with a new face to help him get on the board: Simon Gagne, who is also fresh from a strong playoffs. Along with Ryan Malone, Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and a developing Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay finally looks ready to break the playoff spell and crack the top eight.

With that said, I don’t have high expectations for their postseason performance. Weaker goaltending will prevent a deep run, but I think of this as giving the young star players a taste of the playoffs. Should Tampa continue their rise, they will be dangerous in one or two seasons.

 

 

8. Atlanta Thrashers

After free agency, this team is almost unrecognizable. Four members of the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks have joined the ranks, bringing valuable playoff experience to the franchise that has qualified for the playoffs only once in its 10-year history.

Despite some considerable losses, Atlanta will just squeak into the playoffs with the help of the ex-Hawks, forwards Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel, who will fight to regain the Cup. They will be tremendous assets to the team in not only providing talent, but aid to the younger emerging stars like Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian. Like Tampa, I’m not sure it will be enough to take them deep in the playoffs, but this team looks promising.   

Here's part two of the list.

 

Laura Falcon is a college intern for Bleacher Report and Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at lfalcon@mail.umw.edu.

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