The National Hockey League seasons starts officially Thursday night with the NHL Faceoff weekend. The Boston Bruins will raise their first Stanley Cup banner since 1972 as they host the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers will look to play spoiler after the Bruins swept them out of the playoffs last year in route the Stanley Cup. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs will continue their rivalry. There is no love lost between these two teams. Later out west the Pittsburgh Penguins, without Sidney Crosby, will face the Western Conference Champions Vancouver Canucks.
The action then goes to Europe for the NHL Premiere games. The rest of league gets started Saturday. Fans are excited for the regular season games to get started because of the offseason tragedies. The big event all of hockey is looking forward to is the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic from Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Flyers will host the New York Rangers as the teams take their historic rivalry outside for the first time. Now it is time to look at some of the contenders and sleepers in both the Western and Eastern Conference.
Eastern Conference: Contenders
There will be excitement for the fans of Boston tomorrow night, but will there be a Stanley Cup hangover for the Bruins after the dust settles from the celebration. The Boston Bruins have kept most of their team together after a successful run to the Stanley Cup last season. The only loss for them was Tomas Kaberle, but he did not turn out to be the player he was in Toronto. Tim Thomas had another stellar season for the Bruins, but can he put back to back great seasons together without having a letdown. The Bruins are locked and loaded and they have a good chance to repeat as champions this year.
The Penguins are always a threat to compete for the Stanley Cup. With names like Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, James Neal, and Kris Letang the Penguins should get back to the playoffs. This team is looking good to make the playoffs. The big question mark will be Sidney Crosby. Crosby is on pace to return this season, but he will miss the opening week of games because of concussion like symptoms. The Penguins struggled down the stretch with his absence, but when Crosby returns their chances are much better to win.
It seems every year the Capitals are atop the list of perennial Stanley cup contenders. Each year the Capitals let down their fans and the experts that pick them. This year is going to be different. Look for the stars like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, and Mike Green to have a bounce back year. The Capitals have found steady goaltending for the first time in years since they had Olaf Kolzig in Tomas Vokun. We know the Capitals are built for 82 games of the regular season, but the answer is what about the playoffs.
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Western Conference Contenders
The Canucks will look to build on their momentum of last year and use that experience to propel them to the next step. However, what looms is a Stanley Cup hangover. The team was drained physically and mentally after their heartbreaking loss. If they can rebound, play smart hockey and stay health, the Canucks will be back in the mix of things again. The major question for the Canucks is in goal because Roberto Luongo has shown that sometimes the pressure gets to him. The Canucks will need to their top players to perform in the big games for the Canucks to get back to the finals.
The Blackhawks are looking to rebound from a Stanley Cup hangover. Their team was dismantled last year after they won the Cup in 2010. Players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marion Hossa, and Duncan Keith will look to bounce back after an off year. The Blackhawks have kept their team together from last year adding more grit to a team that lack depth at their third and fourth lines. While they took the Canucks to the brink of elimination, goaltending will be a key for Chicago. Can Corey Crawford be the man in net for a full 82 game season? He proved last year he can handle the load, but can he do it again this year.
San Jose Sharks:
The team that always underachieves in the playoffs took a major step forward this past year by making it to the Western Conference Finals in back to back seasons. The team looks different with no Danny Heatley or Devon Setoguchi, but the core of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski are still in place. The Sharks have solid goaltending and they can make a deep run in the playoffs thanks to the upgrade in defense. Brent Burns will make a difference for the Sharks as he can jump into the rush and help create offensive chances.
New Jersey Devils:
While the Devils are not given a shot, they always seem to pass expectations. The Devils get back their star and captain in Zach Parise and they will bring an added welcome to the offense. Ilya Kovalchuk will be in his second season with the Devils, and with depth at the forward position the Devils offense will be better. The Devils always have a chance when Martin Brodeur is in the net, but with Hedberg backing him, the Devils will have a good shot of getting back to the playoffs. The question is there defense. Adam Larsson has made the team, and he will bring an added attribute of a puck moving defenseman. The defense has been questioned since the departure of key veterans. They need to hold up over an 82 game season.
New York Islanders:
The Islanders have so much young talent that is locked up for many years to come that with the right system in place the Islanders could finally make their move from the bottom of the East to the playoffs. The core of the team has played for many years together and it is a dangerous team to play against. With added help in goal with Evgeni Nabakov, the Islanders could finally take the steps in the right direction.
Los Angeles Kings:
The Kings are looking for consistency especially in the playoffs. The core is young with Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Jack Johnson. They are always a threat in the regular season, but can the Kings get back to the playoffs and make an impact. Time will only answer that question. If the Kings want to get wins in the playoffs they need their goaltenders Jonathan quick and Jonathan berneir to perform at their best to help the Kings advance in the playoffs. With new additions in Mike Richards the time is right for the Kings to take the next step.
Whats Your Verdict?