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Surprise, surprise: Eastern Conference is wide open heading into NHL season

To get an idea of just how wide open the NHL's Eastern Conference is this season, all you have to do is start asking those involved about their competition.

Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson expects Pittsburgh to be tough. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury thinks Washington is poised for a breakthrough. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau thinks Montreal might be the cream of the crop.

And on and on.

The varying opinions are fitting given that the East has seen seven different teams finish first in the conference during the past eight regular seasons.

"I think every year's different, especially with the salary cap now," said Fleury. "Everybody's really close, lots of teams are good. I don't know if I can say that (we are the favourites) but it's our goal.

"We want to get back to where we were last year."

He's talking about the Stanley Cup final, where they were beaten by Detroit in six games. The long playoff run came after Pittsburgh won the Atlantic Division and entered the playoffs seeded second in the conference.

The Penguins are looking to take another step this year but will have to overcome the loss of winger Marian Hossa during the off-season and long-term injuries to defencemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. Expectations remain high.

"There's always expectations," said Penguins forward Jordan Staal. "We have a good team in this dressing room and we know that. That's always going to be there.

"We've got to keep moving forward, trying to get better."

Several teams hope they've improved. Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, Ottawa and the New York Rangers also have serious aspirations of being the team to beat in the East.

The Canadiens were a surprising first seed in the playoffs last season and have added depth up front by trading for Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang over the summer. Couple that with the expected development of young players like goalie Carey Price and it adds up to high hopes in Montreal.

However, coach Guy Carbonneau knows better than to look too far ahead. The NHL is much more competitive now than in his playing days so the task facing his team is a difficult one.

"In the past ... you could take your time - and not coast - but get ready until Christmas and then after Christmas turn it on and finish really strongly," said Carbonneau. "Now, if you have a bad month during the first 10 or 15 games of the season you can be out of the playoffs right away."

They don't have to look very far to find a cautionary tale of how quickly things can go sour.

The Ottawa Senators were Stanley Cup finalists two years ago and started last season by winning 15 of their first 17 games. However, the team soon fell apart and won just 18 of its final 48 regular-season games before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by Pittsburgh.

Clearly, the line between success and failure is pretty narrow.

"There's so much parity in the league now," said Senators forward Jason Spezza. "Just to make the playoffs with the three-point games, the shootouts, you've got to be consistent. You can't afford to have long losing streaks.

"If you get a big cushion, you can't afford to take the foot off the gas. It's not easy to make the playoffs let alone compete for the Cup."

Many view the Capitals as a sexy pick in the East after they returned to the post-season a year ago and was an overtime goal in Game 7 away from moving past Philadelphia in the first round.

The biggest change for the Caps comes in goal, where Jose Theodore is now the No. 1 man after Cristobal Huet and Olaf Kolzig both signed elsewhere on July 1. Up front, Alex Ovechkin is clearly a star while bigger things will be expected of youngsters Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin.

Even still, coach Boudreau is taking a cautious approach with his squad.

"We have not had enough success in the past to think that we're holier than thou," said Boudreau. "All we did is lose in a first-round playoff match. We won the division but we were tied with Carolina going into the last week and we had Florida right there.

"It's not like we think we're the Detroit Red Wings and we're better than everybody else. We didn't get 115 points. We have a lot of work to do."

The toughest division in the conference will likely turn out to be the Atlantic. New Jersey is a perennial contender with Martin Brodeur in goal, the Rangers brought in Nikolai Zherdev, Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin and the Flyers are hoping to build on an appearance in the Eastern Conference final.

Then, of course, there's Sidney Crosby and the high-flying Penguins.

"I think they're still going to be a tough team," said Alfredsson. "It's tough to not regard them as a top team when they have Crosby, Malkin, and Staal as the first three centremen. That's pretty impressive there. Obviously, (it's) fairly easy to build a team around that.

"But they've got some guys that they're probably going to have a tough time replacing right away and finding that chemistry that they had. Then again, who knows?"


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