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Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (8) exchanges blows with (Credit: AP )

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (8) exchanges blows with Pittsburgh Penguins' Chris Kunitz (14) at the end of the third period of the NHL Winter Classic. (Jan. 1, 2011)

NHL Eastern Conference preview 2011-12

After a very sad summer for the NHL and a preseason focus on head shots, concussions and suspensions, it's time for the games again. We've got our 2011-12 Eastern Conference preview here for your reading and viewing enjoyment. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish in each conference.
By Arthur Staple

2. BUFFALO SABRES Ryan Miller has been the
(Credit: Christopher Pasatieri)

2. BUFFALO SABRES
Ryan Miller has been the lone star of Buffalo, but the Sabres’ gang of young, talented forwards led by Thomas Vanek will lead this team to a Northeast Division title. New owner Terry Pegula opened the checkbook for the likes of Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, who are overpaid but add to the hard-working ethic building here.

3. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING Dwayne Roloson is old,
(Credit: AP)

3. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Dwayne Roloson is old, and not just by hockey standards, so the goaltending could be iffy. But Steven Stamkos is the East’s legitimate star with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby out, and Tampa’s run to the Eastern Conference final last spring should lay the groundwork for a successful season in the still-weak Southeast.

4. BOSTON BRUINS Tim Thomas can’t possibly duplicate
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4. BOSTON BRUINS
Tim Thomas can’t possibly duplicate his 2010-11 season, but the Bruins will still be a force, thanks to David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin, the latter poised for a breakout second season. Defense is a question mark, as it is with numerous teams.

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5. NEW YORK RANGERS Marc Staal’s concussion has
(Credit: Getty Images)

5. NEW YORK RANGERS
Marc Staal’s concussion has thrown a wrench into the works with a team that seemed ready to take the next step from playoff squeaker to contender. Brad Richards’ signing solidifies things up front and takes the scoring heat off new captain Ryan Callahan, but the D is now in flux and depth is a question mark.

7. WASHINGTON CAPITALS Last year was supposed to
(Credit: MCT Photo)

7. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Last year was supposed to be their year, but Alex Ovechkin and his squad flamed out in the second round. The Caps had a great summer, adding Tomas Vokoun for a song and veteran Roman Hamrlik to a questionable defense. But it’s still on Ovechkin and his occasionally invisible sidekicks (Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom) to succeed.

8. MONTREAL CANADIENS Not sure how they keep
(Credit: AP)

8. MONTREAL CANADIENS
Not sure how they keep doing it, but the Habs always manage to find a way into the playoff chase. Their defense is younger and there aren’t many top-end talents, but it all works with Carey Price in goal, Tomas Plekanec up front and a nice free-agent addition in Erik Cole.

9. NEW YORK ISLANDERS Improved, for sure, but
(Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan)

9. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Improved, for sure, but the top eight is a tough club to get into. With a healthy squad heading into the season — topped by an older, wiser Rick DiPietro — the Isles do have a real chance at making the postseason, thanks to a pair of top lines that can match with any team and new captain Mark Streit. They will keep things interesting all the way through this season.

11. NEW JERSEY DEVILS The goal of this
(Credit: Newsday/Paul J. Bereswill)

11. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The goal of this season is, of course, a return to the regular-season dominance the Devils enjoyed since the Clinton administration before last season’s debacle. But the bigger goal is to ensure newly minted captain Zach Parise signs long-term; without him, these guys really are sunk. Not having Travis Zajac to start the season and a painfully thin defense could spell another early season dip.

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14. FLORIDA PANTHERS In the stampede to the
(Credit: AP)

14. FLORIDA PANTHERS
In the stampede to the salary cap floor, Florida handed out some, uh, interesting contracts -- among their highest paid players are journeymen Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim, and 35-year-old defenseman Ed Jovanovski is getting $4 million this season. There isn’t a lot to like besides new coach Kevin Dineen and rookie defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

15. OTTAWA SENATORS New coach Paul MacLean has
(Credit: AP)

15. OTTAWA SENATORS
New coach Paul MacLean has some work to do. Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson are still there from the trip to the finals four years ago, but there is little depth and little wiggle room, with some albatross contracts (Sergei Gonchar, for one). It will be a slog in Ottawa this season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL PREDICTION: Sabres over Rangers Goaltending
(Credit: Getty Images)

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL PREDICTION: Sabres over Rangers
Goaltending leads both teams to rare conference final appearances, and the Sabres’ balanced attack takes them past the Rangers in six games.

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