Eastern Conf. predictions

Are Ovechkin's Capitals still the team to beat in the East? At least in the regular season.

With the puck set to drop on another season on Thursday, where do the Flyers stack up in the Eastern Conference?

Here is my prediction for the final regular season standings come April:

1. WASHINGTON -- While the Southeast division has improved a little bit with Tampa Bay, it is still one of the weakest divisions in the NHL. That means the Capitals will accumulate more than enough points to run away with the conference. But as we saw last year, that doesn’t necessarily translate to postseason success. This year, their goaltending is even more suspect with Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Their dynamic offense will continue to carry them but their lack of goaltending and defense will continue to haunt them in the post season.

2. PITTSBURGH -- The Penguins are the odds-on favorite to win the Atlantic division, but it should come down to the wire. Pittsburgh beefed up their defense, like the Flyers, by signing Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin. They also added former Flyer Arron Asham on the wing. Two players they didn’t bring back were free agents Ruslan Fedotenko and Bill Guerin - who entered Rangers and Flyers training camps on tryout contracts only. They still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.

3. BOSTON -- The Bruins, after their stunning defeat in the 2nd round at the hands of the Flyers, may be the most improved team in the NHL. That will happen when you have the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Tyler Seguin, and pick up talented scorer Nathan Horton from Florida. They have a ton of character players in Gregory Campbell and Mark Recchi, a strong defense, and decent goaltending with Tukka Rask. Plus, no one in the Northeast division is particularly threatening.

4. PHILADELPHIA -- It doesn’t matter who the Flyers put in net - whether it’s Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher, Sergei Bobrovsky or Johan Backlund - they will win a lot of games this season. Top to bottom, they have the best defense in the NHL. Nikolay Zherdev and Jeff Carter could combine to score 70 goals. If they could only be more consistent day-in and day-out - which could happen under Peter Laviolette’s reign for an entire season - they could take the Atlantic.

5. NEW JERSEY -- Sure, the Devils spent $100-plus million on signing Ilya Kovalchuk - an ordeal that took up most of the summer. But Kovalchuk doesn’t fit in New Jersey or in new coach John MacLean’s typical Devils system. He will score 40 goals, or somewhere in that neighborhood, but the Devils also lost a lot on defense. Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder won’t be able to replace Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya and Mike Mottau. Plus, Martin Brodeur didn’t seem himself last year in the playoffs. That’s why they signed Johan Hedberg to back him up.

6. BUFFALO -- The Sabres are a scrappy team that could finish anywhere from 8th to 5th in the Eastern Conference, depending on what Lindy Ruff can squeeze out of his youngest players. Let’s keep in mind that they won the Northeast division last season. But they won’t be able to hold off the Bruins this year. They lost Adam Mair and Henrik Tallinder but also added Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn. Ryan Miller will win at least a few games for Buffalo in net.

7. TAMPA BAY -- Some will be surprised that I picked Tampa Bay to slide up into the playoffs. They were just 8 points out of a playoff spot last year and improved by more than eight points with Steve Yzerman as their new GM. Simon Gagne will have a better season playing with Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. Their defense has improved and free agent signee Dan Ellis will be competitive in net.

8. TORONTO -- The NHL needs Toronto, it’s largest market, to be back in the playoffs after the Air Canada Centre has been dark for six straight Springs. Kris Versteeg and Phil Kessel will team-up to inflate the Leafs’ offensive numbers. Toronto’s defense, in my eyes, ranks second behind the Flyers with Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Brett Lebda, Jeff Finger and Francois Beauchemin. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a more than capable starter in the NHL. Playoff hockey will be back in Toronto.

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9. OTTAWA -- The Senators, who finished in 5th in the East last year before bowing out to Pittsburgh in the first round, went out and added power play specialist Sergei Gonchar in free agency but did not address their needs in net. Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott are not playoff goaltenders. Defense won’t be a problem for the Sens, but their offense won’t blow anyone away, either.

10. MONTREAL -- With Jaroslav Halak’s surprising departure to St. Louis in the offseason after a run to the Eastern Conference Final came a great weight on Carey Price’s weak shoulders. He clearly cannot handle the heat in Montreal, as evidenced by his shaky preseason starts and eagerness to mouth off to the rabid fanbase. The Canadiens did not add enough - on offense or defense - to make me think they can hold anyone else off in a playoff chase. Like the Flyers, they finished 8th in the East before their miraculous run last year.

11. ATLANTA -- For many, Atlanta is a trendy pick to challenge for the 8th and final spot in the East. Here’s two things they have going against them: they’ve made the playoffs just once and they’re with the Caps in the Southeast division. That counts for about 5 losses a year. Chris Mason will do a nice job in net. Dustin Byfuglien on defense will be strange. Johnny Oduya and Zach Bogosian will continue to improve on defense. But is Rich Peverly going to lead the offense again? If not him, who else?

12. NEW YORK RANGERS -- Glen Sather may be at the end of his rope. After signing Wade Redden to a 6-year, $39 million contract last summer, Sather was forced to waive his overpaid defenseman last season after a brutal season. New York lost Jody Shelley up front and paid Derek Boogaard, a player who hasn’t scored a goal in four season, $1.3 million per season to be their heavyweight fighter. The Rangers defense will struggle and the team is one locker room cancer away from crumbling.

13. CAROLINA -- The Hurricanes pushed valiantly for a playoff spot last year with a strong March and April but ultimately fell short. Poor Eric Staal and Erik Cole have no one around them on offense. They’ll have to carry the team. The Hurricanes defense isn’t porous and Cam Ward will rock steady in net, but they won’t have the firepower to overtake teams above them.

14. FLORIDA -- It will be another season of rebuilding in South Florida, as the Panthers have not made the playoffs since 2000. But with Pete DeBoer back behind the bench and Dale Tallon running the ship, it won’t be long before the Cats are back in the hunt. Defenseman Erik Gudbranson, picked up in the Draft this summer, will be a huge asset moving forward. He could contribute as soon as this season. Michael Frolik and Chris Higgins are nice additions up front and Tomas Vokoun is an above average netminder. That’s not a bad start.

15. NEW YORK ISLANDERS -- With Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo done for a large portion of the season, the Islanders will be faced with rough seas for most of the year. GM Garth Snow added Milan Jurcina and Mike Mottau in the offseason, but John Tavares and Matt Moulson can’t carry the team themselves. It’s also worth wondering whether goaltender Rick DiPietro - who hasn’t played more than 8 games in a season sine 2008 - can finally stay healthy. He’s still milking that 15-year contract. And the Islanders will be rocking a 15th place finish.

Also, Bodog.com sent their annual odds for the upcoming season. A few of the lines are interesting:

Philadelphia Flyers Over/Under Player Points:
Jeff Carter  Over/Under 71.5
Mike Richards Over/Under 67.5
Nikolay Zherdev Over/Under 57.5
Chris Pronger Over/Under 50.5

Odds to win the 2011 Stanley Cup:
Chicago Blackhawks 6/1
Washington Capitals 13/2
Pittsburgh Penguins 7/1
Vancouver Canucks 8/1
Detroit Red Wings 11/1
Boston Bruins 14/1
Philadelphia Flyers 14/1

Odds to win the 2011 Eastern Conference:
Pittsburgh Penguins 3/1
Washington Capitals 3/1
New Jersey Devils 15/2
Philadelphia Flyers 15/2
Boston Bruins 17/2
Montreal Canadiens 15/1
Ottawa Senators 16/1
Buffalo Sabres 17/1
Tampa Bay Lightning 19/1
New York Rangers 33/1
Toronto Maple Leafs 33/1
Carolina Hurricanes 35/1
Atlanta Thrashers 40/1
New York Islanders 45/1
Florida Panthers 55/1

Odds to win the NHL Atlantic Division:
Pittsburgh Penguins 8/11
New Jersey Devils 2/1
Philadelphia Flyers 7/2
New York Rangers 15/1
New York Islanders 25/1

What are your thoughts for the upcoming season? Did you think one team was ranked too high and one team too low? Your comments are welcome.

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