Early NHL Talk: Eastern Conference Powers

The NHL is underway and the long march to the playoffs starting mid-April has begun. 80 games is a lot to play when 16 teams make the postseason, so the Notebook is going to ease into the regular season previews here. Today we take a quick look at the four most prominent teams in the East. Boston won the Stanley Cup a year ago. Philadelphia reached the Finals in 2010, while Pittsburgh did so in 2008-09, winning in the latter appearance. And Washington is the conference’s most consistent team, winning big in the regular season, but unable to get it done come springtime.

Boston: Forget the media stereotype that this is all about goalie Tim Thomas single-handedly carrying the team. Thomas is great to be sure, but I’m a Bruin fan and watch most of this team’s games on the Center Ice package and they are a complete and well-balanced team, as evidenced by the fact  their play in five-on-five situations (when no penalty is in effect) was the best in the league. The weaknesses are poor execution on the power play, both their own and the opposition’s and the good team balance can result in not having one clear go-to guy.

Philadelphia: The Flyers played very well much of the regular season last year, but goaltending problems started to show late in the year and then everything completely blew up in the playoffs, and they were swept out by Boston. I’m noticing a trend here—Flyers blow up in the playoffs, Phillies blow up in the playoffs…at least the Eagles are blowing up right from the outset. The hockey team aggressively moved to fix its problems signing veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalof to a nine-year contract and the Russian is off to a good start in the early games. I suspect this move will work out, while I would be less optimistic about the other veteran acquisition, winger Jaromir Jagr, whose best days are well behind him.

Pittsburgh: Injuries derailed the Penguins last year and Sidney Crosby, one of the two best players in the game, is still out. Evegni Malkin, hurt during last year’s first-round playoff loss to Tampa, is still beat up, but it’s nothing long-term. Pittsburgh needs to juice up their offense, which ranked only 13th in the NHL a year ago and their ability to convert the power play was even worse.

Washington: As a fan, if Boston doesn’t win, I would love to see my friends who root for the Caps get a chance to experience June ecstasy. Like Boston, Washington is not the team the media presents to the public. The Caps are not a soft team that relies on offense and then gets slowed down in the playoffs. It’s defense that drives their regular season success, as they were fourth in the league, while only ranking 19th in scoring. If we’re looking for an area that has to improve it’s the 5-on-5 play which ranked only 12th, and their ability to convert the power play is even a little bit lower. With a goal-scorer like Alex Ovechkin, the rival to Crosby for the honor of best player in the game, the Caps should rank higher in both areas. They do a tremendous job of killing penalties and doing that over the long haul will win you a lot of games, but if you’re going to go a long way in the spring against other top teams, you need to win battles at full strength and make the opposition pay for mistakes. That, and not some silly “lack of toughness” charge, is a more likely explanation for the playoff losses.