The Washington Capitals, who are second in the East, fourth in the NHL overall and first in goals scored this season, are considered a favorite from the East to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals this year, along with Pittsburgh and New Jersey. They certainly have their work cut out for them against the other two teams.
Pittsburgh has virtually the same team it did when it won the Cup—minus Sykora, Satan, Scuderi, and Gil. Satan and Sykora were virtually disposable and invisible during the Cup run, but Scuderi and Gil were vital.
However, Pittsburgh has done a great job scouting and developing players on their blue-line and Jay Mckee and Mark Eaton are doing a fine job as shutdown defense men for them.
Pittsburgh's biggest advantage is in net and with its centers. Fleury has proven in his young age that he's going to be one of the most elite goaltenders in the NHL for years to come with back-to-back Cup finals appearances along with a Cup win. He single handily won Games Six and Seven for Pittsburgh to capture the Cup. His save at the end of Game Seven against Lidstrom broke my heart because I swear it was going in and sending the game into every fans dream: overtime in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals.
Now, about Pittsburgh's centers, forget about Crosby and Malkin for a second and look at Jordan Staal. Certainly on any other team he'd have a bigger role than he does in Pittsburgh.
It's hard to sit in the shadows of Crosby and Malkin, but Staal provides something the Capitals don't have, a third line center who can shut down the best in the league, and score too.
Along with Malkin and Crosby, who were a force in the playoffs last year, the Penguins are a year more experienced, and have yet to reach their prime. That's kind of scary for every other team in the NHL.
New Jersey Devils are on top of the Eastern Conference and tied for second in the NHL. That's hard to imagine given they've been hit by the injury bug worse than anyone. But they have Martin Brodeur, who seems ageless. However, New Jersey hasn't made it past the second round since 2003, when it won the Cup. If the Devils do the smart thing and rest Brodeur going into the playoffs and get all their injured players back, they'll be one of the toughest teams to beat going into the playoffs.
Now, the Capitals, what do they need to win a Stanley Cup?
They have the most exciting player in hockey, Alexander Ovechkin, one of the best play-making centers in Nicklas Backstrom, the best offensive defenseman in Mike Green, another Alexander who is as dangerous a scoring threat as Ovechkin in Semin. Well, the Capitals need a capable, veteran shut-down defenseman, more importantly, one who is in his prime.
The problem is their isn't really anyone available. There is no one capable in free agency, or the Capitals would've signed him to a one-year deal already. The Capitals would be looking for a player with an expiring contract to leave space to sign Backstrom, Tomas Fleishmann, David Steckel, Eric Fehr, and Jeff Schultz to raises. Washington would be trying to see if Brendan Morrison, who has ressurected his career, fits into their future as well.
One would say goaltending is a big issue, and that's true, but Semyon Varlamov had been spectacular before he was injured. Theodore has been average, but Michael Neuvirth has been great in his call up after first getting his feet wet in the NHL.
Many goaltenders have won Cups at very young ages. Varlamov is still green in net, but if he gets more confidence this season heading into the playoffs, he could be the force he was against New York and most of the Pittsburgh series all the way through the post season.
Mike Green has been better in his own zone, which is a huge plus for the Capitals because he was atrocious last year, and many believe that's what kept him off team Canada for the Olympics, despite him being the best offensive defenseman. Karl Alzner has also improved defensively since his cup of tea last year for the Capitals and Jeff Schultz has been improving as well.
Defense is obviously the Capitals biggest concern for winning a Cup and this isn't the NHL in the '80s in which you could just simply out-score your opponent. If it were, the Capitals would have the best chance of winning the Cup now. Yet, it can still help their case this year.
Last year Ovechkin was so-so against the Rangers and Semin was hot. Against Pittsburgh, Ovechkin was smoking hot while Semin was ice cold. Semin and Ovechkin have to both be hot through the playoffs for the Capitals to win the Cup regardless of their defense and goaltending.
The Capitals have three dangerous lines that can score. That's the one advantage they have over Pittsburgh and New Jersey. If Varlamov can keep up with Brodeur and Fleury, and the defense tightens up, the Capitals have a chance of going to the finals to win a Cup.