Atlantic

EASTERN CONFERENCE
October 03, 2010

PITTSBURGH

Penguins

COACH

Dan Bylsma (3rd season)

LAST SEASON

47-28-7 (4th in East); lost in second round to Canadiens

KEY ADDITIONS

C-LW Mike Comrie, D Paul Martin, D Zbynek Michalek

KEY LOSSES

LW Ruslan Fedotenko, D Sergei Gonchar, RW Bill Guerin

AS THE PENGUINS' players reconvened this September after more than four months apart, coach Dan Bylsma paid close attention to their collective mood. "I feel a sense of unrest," he said, "and it comes from the length of our off-season. There's a feeling that we left something on the table." Pittsburgh's stunning second-round playoff loss to the Canadiens in May came after a steady march (no playoff-series wins in 2007; three in '08; four, including the Stanley Cup finals, in '09) to the top of the NHL. Perhaps, and this is Bylsma's belief, the shock of the Montreal series will ensure his team's unwaning focus as it opens play in the new, luxury-suite-studded, $321 million Consol Energy Center.

At the heart of it all—of the team's mood, of the new building and of the Penguins' continued Stanley Cup hopes—skates captain Sidney Crosby, whose conference-best 51 goals and 109 points last season only begin to illustrate his value to the franchise. (The Consol Center's seating capacity, 18,087, nods at Crosby's number 87 sweater.) The addition of versatile forward Mike Comrie will allow Bylsma to mix his lines (Evgeni Malkin could see nearly as much time at wing as he does at center) while providing a go-to national anthem singer for Pittsburgh's new digs: Comrie married Hilary Duff in August.

The Penguins expect newly acquired Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to shore up the defense in front of goaltender Marc-André Fleury by quickly closing gaps on the ice and getting the puck onto their or their teammates' sticks. "We want to play defense fast," says Bylsma. "If we play defense half a game and offense half a game, that's not good. We want it to be offense 70 percent of the time, defense 30 percent."

The larger goal, which is highly attainable, remains unsaid. "We all see the picture of the Stanley Cup in our dressing room," says Bylsma. "We all know what the picture means."

PHILADELPHIA

Flyers

COACH

Peter Laviolette (2nd season)

LAST SEASON

41-35-6 (7th in East); lost in finals to Blackhawks

KEY ADDITIONS

D Andrej Meszaros, D Sean O'Donnell, RW Nikolai Zherdev

KEY LOSSES

RW Arron Asham, LW Simon Gagne, D Lukas Krajicek

REMEMBER THE FLYERS

last spring? They qualified for the playoffs with a shootout goal in the final regular-season game, upset the Devils in the first round, rallied from a three-games-to-none hole to beat the Bruins in round 2 and wound up coming within two wins of the Stanley Cup. The Cinderella run obscured the fact that Philadelphia is a good, deep team that underperformed for much of 2009--10 and should have no trouble getting back to the postseason in '11.

Centers Mike Richards (below), Jeff Carter and Daniel Brière anchor productive lines that are long on grit. The defense, paced by ferocious Chris Pronger and fortified by the development of twentysomethings Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn, added size and experience in the off-season along with Andrej Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell. The only uncertainty is in goal, where playoff hero Michael Leighton will get most of the time. Before Philly claimed him off waivers last December, Leighton had a record of 18-35-10 and an ugly .896 save percentage in parts of five seasons. The Flyers can win with an average goaltender but not with a lousy one; only if Leighton, 29, reverts to his worst ways will memories of his marvelous spring give way to a winter of discontent.

NEW JERSEY

Devils

COACH

John MacLean (1st season)

LAST SEASON

48-27-7 (2nd in East); lost in first round to Flyers

KEY ADDITIONS

C Jason Arnott, D Henrik Tallinder, D Anton Volchenkov

KEY LOSSES

D Paul Martin, D Mike Mottau, C Rob Niedermayer

SO, WAS IT worth it? By re-signing winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million contract the Devils have committed themselves to a $6.7 million annual salary-cap hit until Kovy turns 42. That deal came only after the league had nixed a previous 17-year, $102 million agreement because it violated the spirit of the cap rules, punishing New Jersey with a $3 million fine and the loss of two high draft picks.

The dynamic Kovalchuk, who came to the Devils from Atlanta last February and who has averaged more than 42 goals a year in his career, joins sniper Zach Parise, underrated center Travis Zajac and crafty winger Patrik Elias to give the Devils the most dangerous offense in team history. But will Kovalchuk, who has played just nine postseason games (five last season), make the difference when it matters in the spring? Even with Hall of Fame--bound goalie Martin Brodeur, New Jersey is 16--26 in the playoffs since winning the Cup in 2003.

New coach John MacLean will open up the offense, putting pressure on the Devils' no-frills defense to protect the 38-year-old Brodeur—hardly a guarantee of success in the tight-checking playoffs. New Jersey seems more than capable of reaching the postseason, but the club won't find out until April or May whether the Kovalchuk deal has truly paid off.

NEW YORK

Rangers

COACH

John Tortorella (3rd season)

LAST SEASON

38-33-11 (9th in East)

KEY ADDITIONS

G Martin Biron, LW Derek Boogaard, LW Alexander Frolov

KEY LOSSES

C Olli Jokinen, LW Jody Shelley

THE RANGERS never seemed to score when they needed to last year: The Blueshirts were held to one goal or none in 29.3% of their games. That futility, which seems destined to repeat itself, came despite the presence of superswift winger Marian Gaborik, whose 42 goals were fifth most in the NHL. No other New York skater scored more than 20.

That the Rangers, who have won just two playoff series in the last decade, got to within a point of the postseason was the result of a late-season scoring surge as well as the stalwart defending done by King Henrik and his lieges. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist (above), a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, remains New York's best player, and he'll again be supported by a solid corps of blueliners—veteran Michal Rozsival, shot blocker Dan Girardi and promising youngsters Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto. Of course, you can't win if you can't score, and unless the Rangers get dramatically improved play out of wingers Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, they won't.

NEW YORK

Islanders

COACH

Scott Gordon (3rd season)

LAST SEASON

34-37-11 (13th in East)

KEY ADDITIONS

D Mark Eaton, D Milan Jurcina, D James Wisniewski

KEY LOSSES

LW Sean Bergenheim, G Martin Biron

SIGNING CAPABLE defensemen Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina to stabilize a blue line that allowed 258 goals last season (third worst in the NHL) just might win Islanders G.M. Garth Snow support for executive of the year. If an improved defense means more victories, it also might mean attracting a few more New York fans. Filling the badly outdated Nassau Coliseum has been a rare occurrence of late, but as captain Doug Weight allows, "it's been a tough sell."

The Islanders haven't won a playoff round in 17 years, they've finished last in the Atlantic three years running, and last season they averaged a conference-low attendance of 12,735. The team's silver lining is its young forwards: 2009 No. 1 draft pick John Tavares (24 goals and 30 assists last season), 22-year-old Kyle Okposo (52 points) and 26-year-old Matt Moulson (team-high 30 goals). The great hope is that goalie Rick DiPietro, 29, whose once promising career has been derailed by injuries (concussions, hip surgery, multiple knee surgeries), can return to at least split time with Dwayne Roloson.

A true optimist—and Weight is one—might see better days ahead in Long Island. But with 12 of the team's first 17 games on the road, this season could slip away before the fall's first frost.

PIERRE MCGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE

Puck-moving blueliners Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek will make the Penguins one of the NHL's toughest teams to forecheck... . The Flyers have two young players ready to break out in forwards Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk, who could combine for 50-plus goals... . The Devils will be helped by the additions of two young defensemen: Henrik Tallinder, a savvy distributor, and Anton Volchenkov, a physical force... . The Rangers' Marian Gaborik(below) is now surrounded by young, energetic offensive players—including Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan—who will make plenty of mistakes but should be fun to watch... . The only way the Islanders will make the playoffs is if goalie Rick DiPietro can stay healthy and regain the form he had early in his career.

PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLAKING CROSBY With the blue line shored up, Sid the Kid and the Penguins have a good shot at their second Cup in three years. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA PHOTOSCOTT LEVY/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (LUNDQVIST) TWO PHOTOSLOU CAPOZZOLA FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)