The meek inherited the East, if not the earth, in the playoffs last spring.
The top-seeded Washington Capitals were upset by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who then eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In the conference final the Canadiens faced the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who had upset New Jersey and rallied from an 0-3 deficit against Boston to become only the third team in Stanley Cup playoff history to erase that deficit in a best-of-seven series. The Flyers won the East but lost the Cup final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
The Capitals are loaded again. So are the Penguins, though they’ll open without the injured Jordan Staal. Last season proved there are no sure picks in this conference.
Here are some story lines to look for in the East:
What do the Flyers do for an encore?
The Flyers made the playoffs by winning a shootout in their season finale, overcoming a December coaching change, questions about their leadership and so-so goaltending. They repeatedly banded together when pressure could have driven them apart.
But they’ll have a tough road to repeat. Goalie Michael Leighton will miss the start of the season because of an injured back, defenseman Chris Pronger is recovering from knee surgery and spunky forward Ian Laperriere is out because of post-concussion syndrome. A long playoff push that ends short of the Cup cuts the summer short and can make it emotionally tough to return to that peak the following season.
What Price success?
The Montreal Canadiens rode Jaroslav Halak’s spectacular goaltending to the East finals but traded him to St. Louis and gave the starting job to Carey Price. General Manager Pierre Gauthier might soon regret that decision.
Price had a rocky preseason and fans wasted no time booing him. He told them to chill. They’ll tell him — in French and English — what they think of that idea if he doesn’t keep the Canadiens in playoff contention.
The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-leading 121 points, but that became a footnote after they lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom finished 3-4 in scoring with 109 and 101 points, respectively. Mike Green led NHL defensemen with 76 points and was a Norris Trophy finalist. The Capitals scored a league-leading 318 goals and should be up there again.
Their defense and goaltending are underwhelming, but if they score four goals a game again they’ll win often. Chicago and Philadelphia reached the Cup final last spring with ordinary goalies, so it can be done. The question is whether Ovechkin and Co. will channel their anger over their early exit into intensity or become the best team that hasn’t won the Cup.
An Ilya wind blows in New Jersey
It nearly took all summer, but the Devils retained winger Ilya Kovalchuk. The NHL’s rejection of their initial 17-year, $102-million contract was upheld by an arbitrator; their 15-year, $100-million deal was accepted only after the league and the players’ union agreed to amend the collective bargaining agreement so long-term contracts can’t be front-loaded.
If Kovalchuk can score 40+ goals, Zach Parise (38 goals, 82 points) continues to blossom and a restructured defense can help protect slowing goalie Martin Brodeur, the Devils might have a Cup run in them.
Yzerman takes winning ways to Tampa Bay
Steve Yzerman spent his entire career in the Detroit Red Wings’ organization but left to become general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a move that has already paid off. He has brought credibility and stability to a club that needed both and traded for prolific winger Simon Gagne.
Steven Stamkos, 20, tied Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby for the league goal-scoring lead last season with 51. He might have only scratched the surface of his potential. Yzerman, a top executive of Canada’s Olympic champion team at the Vancouver Games, has enough good pieces to turn around a team that was 12th in the East last season.