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Rangers, Penguins look like the class of the East as NHL hockey resumes

The last time a lockout held off the start of the NHL season until mid-January was in 1994-95, and the New Jersey Devils claimed thier first Stanley Cup.

Coming off a trip to last season's final, where the Devils lost in six games to the Los Aneles Kings, it would appear that New Jersey is well placed for another shot at the Cup.

The flaw in that assessment is that Zach Parise, their leader and offensive motor in the playoffs, has since bolted to Minneosta on a lucrative, long term free agent contract.

But 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, who backstopped that 1995 club to glory, is still in the net. So while they aren't likely to contend for the Cup, anything can happen.

They will play in a stacked Atlantic division again, where the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will also be contenders.

There were wild swings in the standings coming out of the last two lockouts, so any predictions may be a mug's game this year.

But here's a look at the Eastern Conference in their predicted order of finish:

1. New York Rangers

Last season: 51-24-7, 109 points, 1st seed in East, lost in conference final to New Jersey

Breakdown: The acquisition of seven-time 30-goal scorer Rick Nash from Columbus to go with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik gives the Rangers elite fire power to go with their solid defence and Henrik Lundqvist's top-class goaltending. With hard-working forwards like Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan on the second line, they shouldn't miss the skaters they gave up _ Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon. The muscle they lost in Brandon Prust they got back in Arron Asham. Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh lead an able defence.

2. Boston Bruins

Last season: 49-29-4, 102 points, 2nd seed in East, lost in conference quarterfinal to Washington

Breakdown: Goaltending is the question as the 2011 Cup winners start the season with veteran Tim Thomas in Colorado, taking a sabbatical from hockey. And backup Tuukka Rask may be bothered by a groin injury incurred while playing in the Czech Republic. The Bruins should still have enough to take the Northeast Division. Tyler Seguin emerged as the scoring leader with 67 points last season among a strong group of forwards including Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Rich Peverley and Brad Marchand. Also, Nathan Horton is back after missing most of 2011-12 with a concussion. Captain Zdeno Chara anchors the back line.

3. Washington Capitals

Last season: 42-32-8, 92 points, seventh seed in East, lost in conference semifinal to Rangers

Breakdown: New coach Adam Oates starts with two of the team's top three scorers gone, as Alex Semin has moved to Carolina and defenceman Dennis Wideman was traded to Calgary. Not to worry, as the real star, Alex Ovechkin, is back from Russia to lead the attack. Nicklas Backstrom will look to rebound from an injury-shortened season, and they've added play making centre Mike Ribeiro and winger Wojtek Wolski. They'll look to Mike Green and Dimity Orlov to make up Wideman's power play points. Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth share the net.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins

Last season: 51-25-6, 108 points, fourth in East, lost in conference quarterfinal to Philadelphia

Breakdown: Sidney Crosby is healthy and Evgeni Malkin is back from tearing up the KHL. That's all it takes to make Pittsburgh a contender. They will miss Jordan Staal, but the player they got in return, Brandon Sutter, is a solid replacement at third line centre. The scoring's there with James Neal, Chris Kunitz and others. There's a top puck-moving defenceman in Kris Letang. And Marc-Andre Fleury is all the goaltending they need. If Crosby avoids another concussion, a second Stanley Cup in four years is a real possibility.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning

Last season: 38-36-8, 84 points, 10th in East, out of playoffs

Breakdown: With Mathias Ohlund's career still in doubt over a knee injury, the Bolts picked up defencemen Matt Carle and Sami Salo to bolster a crew that includes veterans Eric Brewer and Marc-Andre Bergeron, and which has towering Victor Hedman back healthy. A better defence should make the difference for a team with a big scoring line led by super-sniper Steve Stamkos and a strong second unit with Vincent Lecavalier. They added enigmatic winger Benoit Pouliot who should be good for his usual 15 goals. The goaltending is so-so with Mathieu Garon, but a better team in front of him should help a team that reached the conference fnal two seasons ago.

6. Otawa Senators

Last season: 41-31-10, 92 points, 8th in East, lost to NY Rangers in conference quarter-final

Breakdown: The emergence of Erik Karlsson as a top-level puck-moving defenceman and point man compensates for the uncertainty about the future of veteran Sergei Gonchar and the loss of Jared Cowan to hip surgery. The team picked up veteran rearguard Mark Methot and still has the steady Chris Phillips on defence. They've lost some toughness in Zeno Konopka and Matt Carkner, but feisty Chris Neil will be boosted by a new contract. And they have decent goaltending in Craig Anderson and enough scoring to give 40-year-old Daniel Alfredsson's swan song some style, if indeed he will ever chose to retire. They also added a healthy-again Guillaume Latendresse.

7. Philadelphia Flyers

Last season: 47-26-9, 103 points, 5th in East, lost to New Jersey in conference semifinal

Breakdown: The defence has thinned with Carle gone, Chris Pronger still out and others banged up. The failed bid to sign Nashville's Shea Weber last summer also hurts. The goaltending looks shaky too with Ilya Bryzgalov. But there are enough guns up front for the Flyers to remain a factor in the East, starting with Claude Giroux's emergence as a star scorer. Youngster Sylvain Couturier may have to play a bigger role as Daniel Briere starts the season with a wrist injury.

8. Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 37-325-10, 84 points, 11th in East, out of playoffs.

Breakdown: The former Atlanta Thrashers didn't bring a lot to Winnipeg, but Jets management is trying to fix that. Adding veterans Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky brings some depth up front to go with solid captain Andrew Ladd, 64-point man Blake Wheeler and unpredictable 30-goal scorer Evander Kane. They may add promising youngster Mark Scheifele as well. Coach Claude Noel has questions on defence with Zach Bogosian nursing a sore wrist, however.

9. Montreal Canadiens

Last season:31-35-16, 78 points, 15th in East, out of playoffs

Breakdown: Top defenceman Andrei Markov's oft-injured knee held up in the KHL during the lockout and that changes a lot on a team that sank to the bottom last season, especially for their anemic power play. Defence will be a strength in a short season as the Habs have eight ready to go. Their top line of David Desharnais, Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty should get more support with captain Brian Gionta back from injury for the second unit. And new coach Michel Therrien will have a little extra grit in newcomers Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong.

10. New Jersey Devils

Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, 6th in East, lost Stanley Cup final to Los Angeles

Breakdown: Zach Parise was the Devils' leader and huge part of their run to the final. Then he bolted to Minnesota, a huge letdown. Then scoring star Ilya Kovalchuk dithered about returning from the KHL. It has the makings of a regrouping season, although you can never count New Jersey and GM Lou Lamoriello out. They could as easily rally to the challenge and be in another final, with veterans Patrick Elias, Travis Zajac and Brodeur leading the way.

11. Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 39-32-11, 89 points, 9th in East, out of playoffs

Breakdown: With Ryan Miller in goal and a hard-working team in front of him there's always a chance for a breakthrough. Underperforming Derek Roy was dealt to Dallas for gritty forward Steve Ott and defenceman Adam Pardy. The rest is mostly unchanged, with 73-point man Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek still leading the attack. If prospect Mikhail Grigorenko makes the squad, it could be an offensive boost.

12. Florida Panthers

Last season: 38-26-18, 94 points, 3rd in East, lost in conference quarter-final to New Jersey

Breakdown: New management boosted the Panthers last season and now the chalenge is to stay up in the top eight with another big year from Tomas Fleischmann, Steven Weiss and Kris Versteeg. They lost their top-scoring defencema Jason Garrison, but still have the talented Brian Campbell and veteran Ed Jovonovsky. They also added tough guy George Parros and centre Peter Mueller.

13. Carolina Hurricanes

Last season: 33-33-16, 82 points, 12th in East, out of playoffs

Breakdown: Brothers Jordan and Eric Staal will finally get to play together and it could be a magic combination, with sniper Jeff Skinner contributing as well. The big question is how gifted but erratic winger Alexander Semin will fit in with his one-year $7 million contract. Coach Kirk Muler has a first-rate goalie in Cam Ward.

14. Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season: 35-37-10, 80 points, 13th in East, out of playoffs

Breakdown: The post-Brian Burke era begins with big questions in goal and an already thin defence likely to start without injured Jake Gardiner. The progression of the promising young talent in the organzation could make a difference. Even fifth overall draft pick Morgan Reilly could start on defence. There's scoring up front with Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel.

15. New York Islanders

Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 14th in East, out of playoffs

Breakdown: John Tavares has evolved from top draft pick to star player, but the team has not kept pace. They lost thier third-best scorer P.A. Parenteau to Colorado, and newly acquired rearguard Lubomir Visnovsky has opted to stay in Slovakia. Once again their fate will be decided by how much their young talent contributes.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky still with the Flyers.



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