Road to Cup Goes Through Big Apple

Bill "Blue Line" Stoklosa & Alex Whitaker

Eastern Conference

10. Tampa Bay Lightning: It’s the same old story in Tampa. Forwards Vincent Lecavelier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, along with defenseman Dan Boyle will try to carry the team into the playoffs. Tampa won’t have enough around their “Big 4” to get there this time.

9. Atlanta Thrashers: This team won the division last year, but their playoff losses to the Rangers showed they really lack toughness. They have a good trio of forwards in Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov. They will be in playoff contention down the stretch, but a lack of adequate defense will doom the Thrashers.

8. Washington Capitals: This team will improve after obtaining some much-needed help next to winger Alexander Ovechkin. The Capitals added forwards Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov in the offseason, as well as blueliner Tom Poti. They should be good enough to squeak into the playoffs.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs should get in this year. The difference will be their new left winger Jason Blake, who notched 40 goals with the Islanders and should thrive next to new linemate Mats Sundin.

6. New Jersey Devils: The most boring team in the NHL took a big hit with the loss of Scott Gomez and defensemen Brian Rafalski. Still, I consider the addition of tough forward Dainius Zubrus one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. They won’t be as good as last year, but it would be a shock if they don’t make the playoffs.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins: Young forwards Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal are coming off sensational years. The best news for the Penguins is both are only going to get better this year. They may have a little trouble keeping the puck out of their own net, but their offense should be good enough to propel the team to their second straight 100-point season.

4. Buffalo Sabres: Sabres fans are reeling from the loss of co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. If center Derek Roy steps up and center Tim Connolly can stay healthy, Briere’s absence shouldn’t hurt too much. But Drury will be much harder to replace. All-star goaltender Ryan Miller should be solid again, but Buffalo’s defense in front of him is iffy.

3. Carolina Hurricanes: Carolina has way too much talent to miss the playoffs for a second straight year. Playing in the weakest division in the NHL will help their return bid. Forward Erik Staal will have to pick up his scoring output and Cam Ward will have to pick up his play in net. But, if the ‘Canes play up to their potential, they should easily win the Southeast.

2. Ottawa Senators: With the Sabres losing a lot of talent this off-season, the Senators are the class of the division. Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Dany Heatley form the best trio of forwards in hockey, while Wade Redden leads a strong group of defensemen. The only concern is at goalie, where Ray Emery is slated to be the starter. His poor play was a major reason for Ottawa’s loss in the finals last year.

1. New York Rangers (Stanley Cup Champions): New York has added two of the best centers in the game in Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to play with the ultra-talented Jaromir Jagr, and veteran winger Brendan Shanahan. Their forwards should score a lot of goals, and with a solid defense led by Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, the Rangers are the complete package.

Western Conference

10. Dallas Stars: One of the best regular season teams in the NHL over the past decade, this year represents the end of an era for the Stars. The team’s defense remains strong with Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher, but Mike Modano represents the entire offense. Unless somebody steps up, the Stars are in trouble.

9. Vancouver Canucks: Anything can happen with the Canucks, as seen by goalie Robert Luongo’s amazing rise to prominence last year and the recent decline of former superstar Markus Naslund. This may be talented center Brendan Morrison’s year to break out; watch and see if he does.

8. Chicago Blackhawks: Absent from the playoffs since 2002, Chicago is looking to be on the upswing after adding several talented draft classes, including this past June’s, in which they selected RW Patrick Kane first overall. If G Nikolai Khabibulin can work some magic, the Blackhawks will make a run at the playoffs.

7. Colorado Avalanche: Despite just missing the playoffs, the Avalanche will look to maintain the momentum that led them to finish last year’s season on a 15-2-2 streak. Armed with forwards Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth up front, the Avs’ performance this season will depend on G Peter Budaj’s development in net.

6. Calgary Flames: Forward Jarome Iginla and goalie Mikka Kiprusoff represent the heart of the Flames franchise and must perform well for this team to succeed. New Head Coach Mike Keenan will shake things up in Calgary, but he should be most concerned with convincing free-agent-to-be Kiprusoff to return next year.

5. St. Louis Blues: Forwards Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk will thrive together in front of a solid defensive corps including rookie Erik Johnson. With dependable Manny Legace in net, the Blues are playoff bound.

4. Minnesota Wild: The franchise had its best season ever last year, finishing with 104 points, but the Ducks beat Minnesota in the first round. The Wild is certainly capable of getting further into the playoffs and will do so if rising superstar F Marian Gaborik and the surprising G Niklas Backstrom stay healthy.

3. Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks cruised through the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup last year, exactly as I predicted in last year’s preview article (seriously). While stars Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer are in retirement limbo right now, expect Colgate alum Andy McDonald and the crew to make it deep into the playoffs again this year.

2. Detroit Red Wings: Perennial powerhouse Detroit seems to be the current favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. Led by ageless stars Niklas Lindstrom on the blue line and Dominik Hasek in net, the Red Wings will look to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to do the majority of the scoring — of which both are exceedingly capable.

1. San Jose Sharks: My pick to win the Stanley Cup this season, the Sharks have it all: goal-scorers (Jonathon Cheechoo), playmakers (Joe Thornton), a tough defense (Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kyle McLaren) and a stud in goal (Evgeni Nabakov). San Jose has no holes in its lineup and will lose the New York Rangers in the finals.