It's almost safe to say that it's a two horse race to be the best team in the East in the 2010-2011 season, between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, with Pittsburgh hanging around as well.
The Caps were the league's best last season, but their postseason struggles have been well documented, while the Flyers rode their No. 7 seed all the way to the Cup finals. This year they hope to take it a step further, and have the talent to do just that.
That seven seed is in no way indicative of the team they've assembled in the City of Brotherly Love. This is a team that could have contended for a top seed, but injuries and inconsistencies, particularly in net, cost them some spots in seeding when the regular season wrapped up.
This year, a healthy team is one that could, and should, challenge Washington to nab that No. 1 seed come playoff time. While the Caps may have, arguably, the best player in the world in Alex Ovechkin, the Flyers are solid from top to bottom, and may have solved their weakness in net.
For any team to be successful, they have to have the talent between the pipes. While Washington may be better than they were last year, few netminders have had hotter starts than Philly's rookie tender Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobby has solidified a questionable spot for the Flyers, who spent most of last year with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher in net.
Leighton is still recovering from surgery, though many had already questioned whether he could carry this team through the season. The rookie has certainly given them the answer, winning nine of his 12 starts, while posting a very impressive 2.09 GAA.
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While the Caps may have the advantage individually along the blue line, with Norris finalist Mike Green, the Flyers' unit as a whole might just be better, given their pleasant mix of vets and youngsters. Chris Pronger may not be the player he once was, but he's still as intimidating as it gets back there. The Flyers have one of the league's top defensive combos in Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle.
Where the Flyers might have the biggest advantage over most teams in the league lies with their forward lines. As the Blackhawks showed last year, you have to be solid from top to bottom, which the Flyers certainly are. From Mike Richards to Dan Carcillo, the Flyers have a group of forwards that may not stand out individually, but are a cohesive unit that brings Philly success nearly every night on the ice.
If there is a star on this team, it's Richards. While his '09-'10 numbers were a bit disappointing compared to the season before, Richards has established himself as the leader of this team, as well as a special teams wizard.
Along with Claude Giroux, Richards has made the penalty kill in Philly not only one of the league's best, but also a scoring threat when down a man. Giroux already has three shorthanded goals, with Richards adding one of his own.
Not only is Giroux an elite penalty killer, he's well on his way to becoming an elite player in the NHL. With already 16 points on the season, Giroux is proving that his playoff performance last season was no apparition.
Yet, still this team goes deeper. Jeff Carter continues to be an offensive threat on this team, despite rumors swirling of his imminent departure, especially with the emergence of Giroux. The line of Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Ville Leino has also proven to have incredible chemistry, combining for 36 points on the year so far.
Even a guy like Carcillo plays a special role on this team. Though the Flyers are a team NHL fans love to hate, Carcillo has firmly set himself above the rest in the hatred department. With already 39 penalty minutes in 13 games, there's no doubt that Carcillo is the goon of this squad. However, if used in the right situation, his temper often lights a spark for this team, as it did in his first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.
While the Flyers may not have the star power that the teams like Washington or Pittsburgh may have in the West, they may be the most solid overall. With multiple scoring threats at the forward spots, intimidating defense, and what looks like a goaltender that can carry them through the playoffs, the Flyers may have found the perfect formula to reach the finals again, but with a different result.