2014-15 NHL Picks and Predictions: Eastern Conference Favorites, Dark Horses and Sleepers: The 2014 NHL season is fast approaching, and looking ahead at the Eastern Conference, history says it’s tough to know who will eventually emerge as the champion. After all, eight different teams have won the East in the last 10 seasons, including five different teams in the last six years. Pittsburgh and Boston are the only two teams to repeat as champs, and coincidentally, they were also the two division winners from a year ago and have been the closest thing to a sure thing in a conference that has been largely unpredictable. With that in mind, here is a closer look at the teams that could contend for the Eastern Conference crown in the 2014-15 NHL season.
Although they were stopped in the conference finals last year, the Boston Bruins are still one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference. After all, they led the conference in points last year, and return a majority of the players that helped them rank third in the NHL in scoring and second in fewest goals allowed. Defending Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Tuukka Rask heads the defense, and David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron lead one of the deepest offenses around. Boston has reached the Stanley Cup Finals twice in the last four years, and the Bruins look to be among the beasts of the East yet again.
They scored the second most points in the conference on their way to a Metropolitan Division title last year, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are once again loaded with talent. From Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz to defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin, the Penguins have the offensive firepower to score in bunches. Health has been a problem in the past, especially concussions, but at full strength the Penguins are one of the most talented teams in the NHL, let alone the East.
The Dark Horses
If not for an injury to goalie Ben Bishop right before the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning may have made a run at the Eastern Conference crown last year. After all, this is a team that finished third in the conference despite missing its best player, Steven Stamkos, for most of the year. Bishop and Stamkos are healthy heading into the 2014-15 season, and with young players like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat coming into their own, the Lightning should have the balance on both ends of the ice to be legitimate contenders.
With a star-caliber player at every level, it is no surprise that the Montreal Canadiens were one of just four Eastern Conference teams to reach the 100-point mark last year. Goal-scoring machine Max Pacioretty heads the offense, P.K. Subban is a perennial Norris Trophy contender on the blue line, and goalie Carey Price can take over a game on any night. The supporting cast may not be as stout as some of the other top contenders in the conference, but the Canadiens’ core group can go toe-to-toe with any team out there.
Although they can be dreadfully inconsistent on offense, the New York Rangers still managed to win the Eastern Conference last year on the strength of an excellent defense. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist heads a unit that allowed the fourth-fewest goals last year, and the Rangers actually won the most road games of any team in the conference. The offense isn’t without weapons, and a full season of Martin St. Louis could help Rick Nash and company become more consistent. At the end of the day, the Rangers are always going to be dangerous as long as Lundqvist is between the pipes and on top of his game.
After sneaking into the playoffs despite a laundry list of injuries last season, the Detroit Red Wings could be poised for bigger and better things in 2014-15 when their group of long-standing veterans team with a group of younger players that got extended ice team a year ago in the wake of all the injuries. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Justin Abdelkader and Gustav Nyquist could form the groundwork of a solid offense, and goalie Jimmy Howard can be counted on for steady play in net. If the Red Wings were a playoff team with their injury-riddled roster, they could be really dangerous if they can stay somewhat healthy.
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