Bruins, Lightning among top challengers to Capitals in East
It seems like no one in the Eastern Conference wants to be considered the team to beat.
Taylor Hall relishes that his Devils were counted out last year before making the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin would love for all the Capitals’ doubters to chime in again.
“Last year, nobody believe in us and we won the Cup,” Ovechkin said. “I hope you guys don’t believe in us again.”
There’s more outside belief in the Lightning, Maple Leafs and, of course, Sidney Crosby’s Penguins to come out of the East than New Jersey taking another step forward or Washington going back to the Stanley Cup Final and repeating. Perhaps that’s because the Eastern Conference is full of a mix of new challengers like Toronto and the familiar cast of contenders from Pittsburgh to Boston to Tampa Bay.
After back-to-back losses in the first round, Toronto made itself an instant favorite by signing John Tavares. That’s fine with star center Auston Matthews.
“Our goal is obviously to make it to the Cup finals,” Matthews said. “The expectations for us this year (after) signing John, I think that’s a good thing for our team because we have higher expectations for ourselves as well. Obviously from the outside looking in, everybody’s looking at us signing him as we’re the team to beat. But we haven’t really accomplished much yet.”
It took a decade of big expectations coming off the Capitals for them to win it all. They certainly earned it too, coming back from an 0-2 first-round deficit to beat Columbus and going through Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay to reach the final.
The path to the final isn’t any easier this year.
The Lightning are smack dab in the middle of perhaps their best window to win it all and have the same team back after winning the Atlantic Division. The Bruins could be dangerous once center Patrice Bergeron and defensemen Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo are healthy.
Bergeron said “the future is bright for the Bruins,” with a boatload of young talent still getting used to the NHL. The present is pretty good, too.
“This year we’re praying for a good bit of health for everyone,” Boston defenseman Charlie McAvoy said. “When we have a healthy team, I think that we’re up there for one of the most competitive teams in the league.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman takes pride in the turnover of playoff teams from year to year as a sign of the NHL’s competitive balance. Three of the eight playoff teams in the East last year missed in 2016-17. Will there be more churn this time around
It would be stunning if Washington, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Columbus and New Jersey all made it back. The Devils look like a strong candidate, but then again, they weren’t picked by anyone to be this good this quickly.
“A year ago if you told me that we were going to win a bunch of games and make the playoffs and we were going to look as good as we did, I would’ve thought you were lying,” Hall said. “I thought it was going to be a gradual climb. So you just really never know.”
Or what about Columbus? The future is cloudy for winger Artemi Panarin and two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and the Blue Jackets may have to trade one or both of them by the deadline.
After losing 28 of their first 47 games last season, the Panthers went 25-8-2 and missed the playoffs by one point. With newly minted captain Aleksander Barkov a year more experienced and in the second season under coach Bob Boughner, Florida is a good bet to return to the postseason and push someone else out.
“We showed it last year that we can beat anybody whenever we’re playing our game,” forward Vincent Trocheck said. “The second half of the season, we had the best record in the league and that wasn’t just a fluke.”
Whether it’s St. Louis loading up on centers, San Jose trading for Erik Karlsson or Los Angeles signing Ilya Kovalchuk, a lot of talent moved to the Western Conference during the offseason. But plenty of movement happened in the East, too, most notably with Tavares leaving the Islanders for his hometown Leafs.
“He’s a top-10 player in the world, he’s obviously accomplished a lot in his career,” Matthews said. “And he’s looking to accomplish the big one. He feels like there’s a good opportunity with us.”
The Penguins added defenseman Jack Johnson, and the Flyers brought back winger James van Riemsdyk to speed up general manager Ron Hextall’s long-term building process.
“He’s patient, but at the same time, we got JvR,” Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux said. “It’s not that patient.”
Four of the league’s six new coaches are in the East as Barry Trotz moved on to the Islanders and was replaced in Washington by longtime assistant Todd Reirden, Carolina hired Rod Brind’Amour to succeed Bill Peters and the Rangers plucked David Quinn out of Boston University. Trotz is the only one with previous NHL head-coaching experience.
“He succeeded so much last year,” Islanders forward Anders Lee said. “It’s extremely exciting for us to have a coach with his resume, even prior to him winning the Stanley Cup, come behind our bench.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno