For the Penguins to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, they’ll have to fight through some tough competition.
The Atlantic Division is always stacked and this season should be no different. The proof is there: The Pens have just one division championship in the last 11 seasons.
And then there’s the rest of the East.
For the Penguins to get through the grind of the regular season and earn home ice in the playoffs, they’ll have to beat out not only a tough division but the rest of the Eastern Conference as well.
Here are my top 5 challengers to the Penguins for the Eastern Conference crown.
#5: New York Rangers
The Rangers are always there and always a thorn in the Penguins’ side. It doesn’t help that the Pens have to play them six times a year — three of which are at Madison Square Garden, where the Pens went 0-1-2 last year.
Every year this team redoes its roster and every year they have high expectations.
For 2009, the Rangers added a different high-profile scorer: Marian Gaborik. He — like so many other New York acquisitions — has the potential to make the Rangers incredibly dangerous.
So it would be silly to leave these guys out of the argument right now. The question is, will they ever live up the their own preseason hype?
The Penguins need to expect they will and bring a better game to the Garden in 2009.
#4: New Jersey Devils
Many say it’s going to be a down year for the Devils.
Well, we all thought that when Martin Brodeur went out early last season with a torn bicep. All New Jersey did was win the Atlantic by 7 points with a 51-27-4 record (106 pts.).
Zach Parise put up 94 points in 2008-09 and proved that there can be a contender for a scoring title playing for the Devils. If he has a similar season, I don’t care about who they lost and that Jacques Lemaire is, for some reason, back as head coach.
Give Jersey an early lead and they’ll still be a tough team to come back on.
They’ll still be in the playoffs as well.
#3: Boston Bruins
Adding defenseman Derek Morris to the blue line makes Boston an even tougher team to score against (they allowed the fewest goals in the league last year) and I don’t expect Tim Thomas’ performance to change much.
Remember, there’s not much different on a Bruins team that won the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed and home ice in the playoffs. They’re going to be tough to beat every night.
Phil Kessel is gone, which will hurt. A guy that scored 36 goals last year isn’t easily replaced. However, the Bruins have solid scorers in Marc Savard (88 pts), David Krejci (73 pts) and Michael Ryder (27 goals).
#2: Washington Capitals
Not much needs to be said of the Capitals and their scoring strength.
Defense and goaltending will be interesting to watch at the beginning of the season as both are question marks. However, you can throw all of that out the window when the Pens and Caps play.
The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry was already a big deal before both teams went seven games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Just wait for them to play for the first time since Sid and company embarrassed Washington and their fans in Game 7 at Verizon Center. To quote Dan Bylsma quoting Bruce Boudreau on the Pens Stanley Cup Champions DVD, it will be a “Circus-like atmosphere.”
#1 Philadelphia Flyers
The road always has to go through Philly, and that’s why they’ll be the biggest challenge for the Pens this season.
They’ve gotten tougher, if you can believe it, and they now have two consecutive playoff exits courtesy of the Pens. Emotions will be as high as they’ve ever been in this rivalry and each game will have Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference title implications.
Pittsburgh won the season series — going 4-2-0 against Philadelphia — beat the Flyers out for home ice in the first round on the last day of the season and then defeated them 4-2 — the final game at the Wachovia Center, scoring 5 unanswered goals after falling behind 3-0.
You think the Flyers might want revenge?
The Pens sure haven’t made any friends over the last two years on their way to success. This season might bring some of the most passionate hockey we’ve seen in the regular season in years.
All I know is, it’s about time to get back on the ice.
Chris | PPT