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The Boston Globe

Sports

NHL 2011-12: Eastern Conference preview

Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals may be one of the NHL’s best teams this year.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals may be one of the NHL’s best teams this year.

With the NHL season about to begin, The Boston Globe examines the teams in the Eastern Conference.

1. WASHINGTON

COACH: Bruce Boudreau (Fifth season with Capitals).

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RECORD: 48-23-11, 107 points, 1st in East.

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Tampa Bay in Round 2.

NOTABLE: Need something to snap string of first- and second-round playoff knockouts. Could be that something is Tomas Vokoun, ex-Panthers star who signed for short money when the goalie market dried up quickly over the summer. Key blueliner Mike Green expected back at full strength after injuries limited him to only 49 games. But it’s first and foremost about the Caps’ elite forwards, including Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin.

2. BOSTON

COACH: Claude Julien (Fifth season with Bruins).

RECORD: 46-25-11, 103 points, 3d in East.

PLAYOFFS: Won Stanley Cup, defeating Vancouver in Final.

NOTABLE: Still living enchanted lives after winning first Cup since 1972. But a couple of questions linger: 1. With Marc Savard likely finished, who is the No. 1 center, David Krejci or Patrice Bergeron? 2. Is ex-Cane Joe Corvo really the remedy for man-advantage melancholy? Julien’s approach not about to change: roll four lines and depend on solid, full-team defense, backed by Zdeno Chara and inimitable goalie Tim Thomas.

3. PHILADELPHIA

COACH: Peter Laviolette (Third season with Flyers).

RECORD:47-23-12, 106 points, 2d in East.

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Boston in Round 2.

NOTABLE: Convinced they had the wrong mix in the locker room, Broad Streeters stunned everyone and wheeled Mike Richards (to LA) and Jeff Carter (to Columbus), in theory leaving Laviolette with a more compliant, attentive lot. Looked like a listless bunch when losing in four straight to the Bruins. They finally appear to have ever-gaping net covered with Russian stopper Ilya Bryzgalov. Jaromir Jagr is back from Russia for a late-in-life tour of Original 30.

4. TAMPA BAY

COACH: Guy Boucher (Second season with Lightning).

RECORD: 46-25-11, 103 points, 5th in East.

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Boston in Round 3.

NOTABLE: The Bolts took a huge step forward last season under new leadership of VP/GM Steve Yzerman and Boucher behind bench, making much of their first playoff appearance in four years. Martin St. Louis finished with 99 points. Budding superstar Steve Stamkos had 91. Pressed Bruins to Game 7 of Conference final before bowing out. If Vincent Lecavalier (only 54 points in 65 games last year) is back in full flight, could challenge for top spot in division.

5. PITTSBURGH

COACH: Dan Bylsma (Fourth season with Penguins).

RECORD: 49-25-8, 106 points, 4th in East.

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Tampa Bay in Round 1.

NOTABLE: Impressive season, considering debilitating injuries to both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom were not available for the postseason. Crosby (concussion) still isn’t sure about a return date, but Malkin is good to go. Provided Crosby plays near peak form, Penguins easily will put up 100 points again and win the division. Solid on backline with likes of Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Zbynek Michalek, backed by top stopper Marc-Andre Fleury.

6. NY RANGERS

COACH: John Tortorella (Fourth season with Rangers).

RECORD: 44-33-5, 93 points, 8th in East.

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Washington in Round 1.

NOTABLE: Rangers spent big this summer to deliver a Cup! Sorry if you’ve heard that one before. The priciest catch was ex-Star Brad Richards, 31, who signed for nine years and $60 million. The Blueshirts have not won a playoff round for four straight seasons (including 2009-10 DNQ). Now they’ve added Richards in hopes that he and forward Marian Gaborik can be key ingredients for Tortorella to whip up a winner. Excellent stopper in Henrik Lundqvist. But overall shaky defense remains.

7. NEW JERSEY

COACH: Peter DeBoer (First season with Devils).

RECORD: 38-39-5, 81 points, 11th in East.

PLAYOFFS: DNQ.

NOTABLE: It probably took GM Lou Lamoriello a little too long to hit reset button on failed John MacLean experiment as head coach. Tremendous second half had Devils flirting with playoff spot under Jacques Lemaire, but ran out of time. DeBoer, let go after three years as coach of the Panthers, can have these guys right back in playoffs, but needs Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise both to be sharp right off hop. Franchise goalie Martin Brodeur, now 39, still among game’s best.

8. TORONTO

COACH: Ron Wilson (4th season with Leafs).

RECORD: 37-34-11, 85 points, 10th in East.

PLAYOFFS: DNQ.

NOTABLE: Most important piece, goaltending, looks answered with James Reimer (20-10-5 in 37 games last season). Over the summer GM Brian Burke also added potential No. 1 pivot in Tim Connolly and backline offensive punch in John-Michael Liles. Connolly’s main mission will be to feed ex-Bruin Phil Kessel, who really didn’t have a legit No. 2 center his first two years in Toronto. Poised to take sizable step forward, but no guarantees.

9. BUFFALO

COACH: Lindy Ruff (14th season with Sabres).

RECORD: 43-29-10, 96 points, 7th in East.

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Philadelphia in Round 1.

NOTABLE: All is well in Pegulaville, this tired city’s new nickname in wake of billionaire Terry Pegula taking over sons of French Connection. Improved backline with pricey addition of Christian Erhoff (10 years/$40 million) and added snap among forwards with ex-Flyer Ville Leino. Late in summer, they came to long-term agreement with budding franchise blueliner Tyler Myers. Not huge changes, but enough roster depth and coaching quality for Sabres to return to playoffs.

10. MONTREAL

COACH: Jacques Martin (Third season with Canadiens).

RECORD: 44-30-8, 96 points, 6th in East.

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Boston in Round 1.

NOTABLE: A shot here or there and the Habs might have squeezed by the Bruins in Round 1. In the free agent market, they picked up Hurricanes warhorse forward Erik Cole and lost defensemen James Wisniewski (Columbus) and Roman Hamrlik (Washington). All in all, much the same team; will rely heavily on small, fast, and efficient forwards (Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, and captain Brian Gionta). Goalie Carey Price finally looks like franchise stopper.

11. NY ISLANDERS

COACH: Jack Capuano (Second season with Islanders).

RECORD: 30-39-13, 73 points, 14th in East.

PLAYOFFS: DNQ.

NOTABLE: Failed to get Nassau County voters over the summer to fund a new arena, but remain in place for now and should be better than last four DNQ seasons. But how much better? Depends on how a core young group, now with some seasoning, performs. To wit: Michael Grabner, John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Matt Moulson, and others. Ultimately success will depend on keeping down the goals-against (a bountiful 264 last season). Getting there. Slowly. Painfully.

12. OTTAWA

COACH: Paul MacLean (rookie NHL season).

RECORD: 32-40-10, 74 points, 13th in East.

PLAYOFFS: DNQ.

NOTABLE: Yet to win a playoff round since losing to Anaheim in ’07 Cup final. Kept GM Bryan Murray in place and will hope for a franchise kickstart with MacLean behind the bench. Incredible to think that Jason Spezza, limited to only 62 games last year, led the team in scoring with a paltry 57 points. It must start with Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and maybe Nick Foligno up front and the aging Sergei Gonchar (37) on power-play point. Transition will take time.

13. CAROLINA

COACH: Paul Maurice (13th season in two stints with Whalers/Hurricanes).

RECORD: 40-31-11, 91 points, 9th in East.

PLAYOFFS: DNQ.

NOTABLE: Biggest move was acquisition of Boston free agent Tomas Kaberle, whose signing ostensibly sent Joe Corvo to the Bruins. As Boston did, Hurricanes will look for Kaberle to add puck moving and juice up the power play. The Czech star did not deliver in Hub. Canes haven’t made playoffs in six of the last eight seasons, taking on aura of Forever .500 Whalers. Keys will be center Eric Staal, progress of Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner and, as always, stopper Cam Ward.

14. FLORIDA

COACH: Kevin Dineen (rookie NHL season).

RECORD: 30-40-12, 72 points, 15th in East.

PLAYOFFS: DNQ.

NOTABLE: True, it cannot be worse, but it might be significantly better, given host of GM Dale Tallon’s acquisitions, including Brian Campbell and prodigal son Ed Jovanosvki on defense, as well as likes of Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, and Matt Bradley up front. Dineen finally gets to run a bench and undoubtedly will stress discipline and hard work. With Tomas Vokoun gone, No. 1 net job likely to go to ex-BC Eagle Scott Clemmensen (8-11-7 last year).

15. WINNIPEG (ex-Atlanta Thrashers)

COACH: Claude Noel (1st season with Jets)

RECORD: 34-36-12, 80 points, 12th in East.

PLAYOFFS: DNQ.

NOTABLE: Fresh start for ex-Thrashers, about to do business as Jets Redux. Everyone in Manitoba is excited, refreshing in the wake of stifling fan apathy in Atlanta. What do these guys have that Thrashers didn’t? Other than crazies in the seats, not much. Top scorer from last year is Andrew Ladd, with a measley 59 points. Ex-Bostonians Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart should help, along with ex-Canucks F Tanner Glass. Defensive horse Dustin Byfuglien didn’t help with offseason boating antics.

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