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NHL 2015 Eastern Conference Preview

You smell that? That the’s glorious return of hockey on the horizon!

Big hits, random fluky goals, puck dangling, reactionary saves, missing teeth etc. are all back tomorrow night in the NHL, beginning with the defending champion Blackhawks’ banner night against the Rangers at the United Center.

There is no other spectacle like grown men on skates on ice punishing each other for a small black disc. There is no way our society can get better. We’ve reached our peak.

On the eve of the season’s return, we’ve decided to do a preview of each conference for the 2015 season as well as a Stanley Cup pick, so you can know what to expect before your team faces heartbreaking elimination after an unlucky bounce in April (happens to the best of us, but not my Hawks….*knocks on wood*).

First, let’s touch on the Eastern Conference, with a burning question for each expected playoff team.

1) Tampa Bay Lightning, Last Year: Lost Stanley Cup Final 

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  • Can the Lightning bring it all back together to finish the job this year?

After ultimately falling short to Chicago in the Final, Tampa largely brings back the exact same roster featuring stalwarts like centers Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson as well as future Norris trophy winner, Victor Hedman.

The pieces are certainly in place, it’s just a matter of if Tampa can go through the playoff gauntlet again.

They’ll certainly be the fastest, most athletic, and be most equipped for shot suppression in the East. It just may come down to simple cliche puck luck in big games that can keep Tampa from returning to June hockey. Because they simply don’t have huge question marks.

2) Washington Capitals, Last Year: Eliminated in 2nd round

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, celebrates a goal by center Mike Ribeiro during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders on Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • Can the Capitals get over the hump?

Not many franchises have been tortured year after year with playoff failure despite all of the talent in the world like the Capitals (The Cubs have been exempt from the talent part).

It now has become a yearly event where everyone simply awaits the collapse of the Capitals as they blew a 3-1 series lead over the arch-rival Rangers last season. Additions of “Mr. Game 7” (such a dumb nickname) Justin Williams and TJ Oshie figure to be the missing depth pieces a talented Washington squad has needed.

Everything is in place for Ovechkin and the Caps, it’s just a matter of execution come Spring time.

3) New York Rangers, Last Year: Eliminated in Eastern Final

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  • Who can score or rather, who steps up to be a star center?

The Rangers have the deepest defensive corps in the league featuring guys like Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi etc. They have one of the best goaltenders of his generation in Henrik Lundqvist. They also have solid depth among their 4 lines with guys like Rick Nash (Why do I find myself laughing?), Derek Stepan and more.

However….

Where’s that star center or superstar clutch scorer almost every recent championship team has had (You can probably look at every single Cup team ever and see that they had a legit #1 center)?

Toews, Kopitar, Bergeron, Datsyuk, Crosby are all among the names of those who have won the Stanley Cup in the past 10 years. Who do the Rangers have to match that? Derek Stepan? Yeah, that’s not gonna cut it.

Someone like the 23 year old Kevin Hayes may have to grow into that star center role over the course of the season.

But is he ready?

4) Pittsburgh Penguins, Last Year: Eliminated in 1st round

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  • How does newly acquired Phil Kessel fit into the mix?

The Penguins are one of those teams, that after appearing in two straight Stanley Cup Finals in 2008-2009, that everyone wonders how they haven’t returned to that same peak.

Well for one, the Penguins depth has been decimated in recent years.

Pittsburgh is among one of if not the most top heavy team in the league featuring generational talent center Sidney Crosby (Pierre McGuire will tell you all about him), star 2nd center, Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang.

Those are some more than solid pieces, however, there’s not much behind them to support. The Penguins have almost exclusively made their recent playoff runs on the backs of these players and ultimately that just can’t happen.

The addition of superstar winger Phil Kessel should help change things as he now pairs with Crosby. Pittsburgh can trot out Crosby, Kessel and whoever else as a top line while figuring Malkin and his bunch later. In fact, the addition may culminate in another Hart Trophy for Crosby.

The only question is how effective Kessel can be to help drive the Penguins in a facet they’ve certainly been lacking.

Because despite the weight jokes (Google it), Kessel can play.

5) Montreal Canadiens, Last Year: Eliminated in 2nd round

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  • So, uh, who scores goals here?

Despite an all worldly season from wunderkind goalie, Carey Price, where he captured the Vezina and Hart Trophy (Best goalie and league MVP for you casuals), the Montreal Canadiens ultimately fell short in the 2nd round.

They fell short, because they simply can’t score. Outside of winger Max Pacioretty, who can Montreal rely on to put pucks in the net? And Pacioretty isn’t exactly one of those generational talents that can put a team on his back at a moment’s notice.

It begs the question as to why Montreal didn’t swing a trade for someone like Patrick Sharp or perhaps sign Justin Williams.

21 year old top Habs prospect center Alex Galchenyuk may be the answer Montreal has been looking for, but he’s still growing and depth is still an issue otherwise.

They could use the help greatly.

There is a decent enough defense albeit also being top heavy in front of Price, featuring perennial Norris candidate, PK Subban, but unless someone steps up on the goals front, Montreal’s season will end the same way it did last spring.

6) New York Islanders, Last Year: Eliminated in 1st round

New York Islanders' John Tavares reacts after scoring the winning goal during the overtime period of Game 3 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series against the Washington Capitals Sunday, April 19, 2015, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders defeated the Capitals 2-1. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

  • Who can play defense here? No upgrade at goalie?

A common theme among most of the bottom feeding Eastern teams, is depth, or lack thereof. The Isles fit under the same mantra. A team that features superstar center John Tavares, as well as Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and Kyle Okposo (#FreeOkposo) doesn’t have much behind it.

The Islanders were one of the best teams in the league through the first half of the season last year then fell off quite dramatically from that mantle once the lack of depth shined through.

There is no reason to expect a different result this season unless an issue of development occurs.

Tavares and his companions are certainly good enough to carry this team through to playoff respectability (Tavares was in the lead for the Art Ross most of the season), but beyond that, there needs to be more than Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk defensively.

Especially when your goalie has turned into a sieve of stability in Jaroslav Halak.

7) Columbus Blue Jackets, Last Year: Did not make postseason

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  • Can the youth of Columbus prevail?

Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards seemingly has his hands full in the 2015 season. The addition of star LW Brandon Saad in a trade from Chicago, has certainly raised expectations in Columbus.

There are still some missing pieces defensively, but to many, there is no question this is a lower seeded Eastern Conference playoff team.

Players like Saad, Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno on the top line as well Brandon Dubinsky as your 2nd line center and Scott Hartnell on your 3rd line add a lot of confidence for any young bunch.

Columbus isn’t winning a Cup any time soon by any means, but it remains to be seen how their speed and youth shakes up the East in 2015.

8) Detroit Red Wings, Last Year: Eliminated in 1st round

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  • Who steps up among the young forward crop?

Ever since losing the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh in 2009, Detroit has been largely irrelevant on the grand scale of being a true contender.

Sure they have now made the playoffs in 23 straight seasons, five short of the NHL record, which shows off tremendous organizational stability, but they haven’t been that same powerhouse they used to be.

Some of it points to old age among star players like center Pavel Datsyuk (36) or wing Henrik Zetterberg (34) and some of it points to a developing forward crop that has been amassed in Detroit’s farm system in recent years.

Well that forward crop now has its time to shine as Datsyuk will miss at least the first month of the season. Dylan Larkin steps into the #1 center role as of one of the organization’s top touted prospects, while guys like Tyler Bertuzzi and Teemu Pulkkinen will be relied on more than ever.

The success of these young guys will ultimately predicate whether Detroit becomes a powerhouse again soon or just stays on the playoff borderline.

Final Predicted East Finish:

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning 
  2. Washington Capitals
  3. New York Rangers
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins
  5. Montreal Canadiens
  6. New York Islanders
  7. Columbus Blue Jackets
  8. Detroit Red Wings

Eastern Conference Final: Lightning over Capitals

Before the Capitals blew a 3-1 lead in the 2nd round last year, I thought this was the matchup we were going to get in the Eastern Final and I thought Washington would have advanced past to the Final.

I don’t think that this year.

I think Tampa Bay is on a mission to make up for its missteps in the Final. I think bringing back the same talented explosive roster with the unified goal of redemption speaks volumes for teams in sports (no matter how cliche it is) and I just don’t think anyone in the East can largely keep up with their speed.

Justin Williams and TJ Oshie are nice additions, but they certainly don’t help with that factor.

For Tampa its just about returning to that same June stage and getting another shot. No one in the East will stand in their way.

Whether they succeed this time remains to be seen as the West is a different gauntlet.             (Shameless plug: I’ll tell you in the next article!)

-Robert Zeglinski

Robert Zeglinski is an aspiring sportswriter who absolutely loves all the nitty gritty that comes with pro sports. He is currently attending Aurora University in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigZags82 or reach him through email (robertpoduski@gmail.com) for questions or feedback. 

(Sources: lightning.nhl.com, edmontonjournal.com, nj.com, bleacherreport.com, cbssports.com, bluejackets.nhl.com, sports.yahoo.com, NHL)

 

 

 

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