Unlike the West, the Eastern Conference is completely wide open. Only the Lightning and Panthers have no realistic chance to make the playoffs, and no team is guaranteed a spot.

There are eight teams that have a legitimate chance to win the conference, and some preseason candidates to make the finals probably won’t even qualify for the postseason. Last season proved that once the regular season ends, anything can happen in the playoffs. Going into last year’s playoffs, the Hurricanes weren’t expected to advance past the first round, instead, they made the finals and gave Detroit a decent series. The playoffs also left bad blood between some teams, and this regular season will be the first chance to avenge some cheap shots from last year.

Northeast Division

1. Ottawa Senators ? Wade Redden and 6’9″ Zdeno Chara have emerged as two of the top defensemen in the league, and if prospect Jason Spezza can make the team, the Senators may win the conference.

2. Montreal Canadiens ? The return of a cancer-free Saku Koivu and addition of Mariusz Czerkawski will help their offense, but reigning MVP Jose Theodore will need another superb season if the Habs are going to have a chance to win the East.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs ? Even with All-Star goalie Curtis Joseph at the top of his game, the Leafs failed to take advantage of a weak conference last season and may have their best days behind them. CuJo signed with Detroit and Ed Belfour will need to return to 1999 form if the Leafs are to make the playoffs.

4. Buffalo Sabres ? Amid ownership turmoil, the Sabres may emerge as one of the surprise teams of the East if young forwards such as Tim Connolly continue to improve and goalie Martin Biron plays like he did when he was backing up Dominik Hasek.

5. Boston Bruins ? Without 40 goal scorer Bill Guerin, goalie Byron Dafoe, and unsigned defensemen Kyle McLaren, the team that finished first in the Eastern Conference during the regular season last year might not even make the playoffs. At least New Englanders still have the Patriots.

Atlantic Division

1. New York Islanders ? With captain Mike Peca out until December, Dave Scatchard, Brad Isbister and Oleg Kvasha mist finally play to their potential, and either Isbister, Kvasha or rookie Trent Hunter must step up and help out Alexei Yashin. A healthy defense and the addition of Mattias Timander means that Adrian Aucoin won’t need to play 35 minutes per game for the Isles to win.

2. New York Rangers ? If new coach Bryan Trottier, center Bobby Holik, defenseman Darius Kasparitis, Pavel Bure and Tom Poti for an entire season, and the highest payroll in hockey can’t get the Blueshirts to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, the Rangers might want to fire Glen Sather and consider hiring Tom Hicks.

3. Philadelphia Flyers ? Trading Brian Boucher to Phoenix takes pressure off Roman Cechmanek to win the starting goalie job, but now the pressure to win the Flyers the Stanley Cup rests entirely on his shoulders.

4. New Jersey Devils ? As always, their fate lies in the hands of goalie Martin Brodeur. If he’s on top of his game, the Devils are nearly unbeatable. If he struggles, they probably won’t make the playoffs.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins ? If Mario Lemieux stays healthy and produces like he did in his comeback season, the Pens can make the playoffs. But if his hip and back cause problems and he is forced to sit out too many games, they might be the worst team in the conference.

Southeast Division

1. Carolina Hurricanes ? Hockey’s version of the Patriots, the ‘Canes won’t be surprising anyone this year with a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Eric Cole is one of the top young forwards in hockey, and Kevin Weekes will battle Arturs Irbe for the starting goalie job all season.

2. Washington Capitals ? If Jaromir Jagr and Olaf Kolzig can rebound to their All-Star forms, so too will the Caps. But if they struggle, part-owner Michael Jordan will need to lace up the skates just to draw a crowd to the MCI Center.

3. Atlanta Thrashers ? Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuck were 1-2 in Calder Trophy voting for Rookie of the Year. They will continue to improve and two or three years from now will probably form the best 1-2 scoring punch in the league, but for now the Thrashers aren’t quite ready to make the playoffs.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning ? Have little defense and even less offense. Nikolai Khabibulin is one of the top goalies in the NHL, but without any support, the Lightning will battle Florida to stay out of last place.

5. Florida Panthers ? Were awful last year even with Pavel Bure. Trading him to the Rangers for next to nothing certainly won’t help Mike Keenan’s thinning hair. Goalie Roberto Luongo remains the only bright spot on this horrible team.

Swidler can be reached at dswidler@campustimes.org.



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