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Northeast Division: Home of the champions

Sam McCaig
Yahoo Sports
Northeast Division: Home of the champions
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Zdeno Chara's Bruins didn't mess with their Cup-winning roster, and return with mostly the same cast

It’s true: Boston is wicked awesome. The Northeast Division is home to the NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champions as the Bruins captured their first league title in 39 years. The B’s are set to return with basically the same deep, star-laden squad; if they can avoid the Cup hangover, they’ve got a realistic shot at repeating. The most improved team in the Northeast should be the Buffalo Sabres, given the moves they made on defense and the amount of cash they threw at free agents. The Toronto Maple Leafs should also be better and possibly the Montreal Canadiens, too, but Canada’s Original Six clubs will be in tough to make the playoffs. The Ottawa Senators, meanwhile, have nowhere to go but up, but don’t kid yourself into thinking the rebuilding Sens are anything more than a lottery team.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Boston Bruins*

2. Buffalo Sabres*

3. Montreal Canadiens

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

5. Ottawa Senators

(Asterisk denotes playoff team.)

1. BOSTON BRUINS

Five Most Important Players

1. Zdeno Chara(notes), D: The Bruins’ on-ice general is an intimidating defensive presence who sets the physical tone and uses his reach to shut down opposing stars. There’s never been an NHLer with Chara’s combination of size, skill and dedication.

2. Tim Thomas(notes), G: After a regular season for the ages, the veteran stopper was even better in the playoffs. The challenge is to do it again.

3. Patrice Bergeron(notes), C: One of the best two-way players in the NHL.

4. Milan Lucic(notes), LW: Monster winger creates space for linemates and is blossoming into a top power forward.

5. David Krejci(notes), C: Elite skill set and passer, he’s the No. 1 center for the defending NHL champions. It’s good work if you can get it.

Best-Case Scenario: More of the same, and the Bruins win it all again to become the league’s first back-to-back champ since Detroit in 1997 and ’98.

Reality Check: The Stanley Cup hangover is tough to shake and Thomas can’t possibly be as good as he was last season, can he?

2. BUFFALO SABRES

Five Most Important Players

1. Ryan Miller(notes), G: He’s had stretches in the past few years where he’s been the best goalie in the world.

2. Tyler Myers(notes), D: The additions of Christian Ehrhoff(notes) and Robyn Regehr(notes) are great, but Myers is the team’s No. 1 defenseman and he’s only 21.

3. Ville Leino(notes), LW: A key contributor during the Flyers’ run to the 2010 Cup final, he gets his chance to be a go-to guy.

4. Christian Ehrhoff, D: Finally put it all together last season as a Canuck, and was rewarded handsomely for his efforts. The fact he joins a deep defense corps in Buffalo should ease his transition and keep his confidence high.

5. Derek Roy(notes), C: Productive, proven pivot will have his pick of scoring wingers. A tendon injury caused him to miss the second half of last season, the first time he’s been sidelined for an extended period.

Best-Case Scenario: The new pieces complement the Sabres’ ever-improving youngsters and Buffalo is a bona fide force in the East.

Reality Check: Big money and high hopes also means more pressure to win. Can the new-look Sabres pass the chemistry test and deliver on the elevated expectations?

3. MONTREAL CANADIENS

Five Most Important Players

1. Carey Price(notes), G: Put a rocky start to his Canadiens career behind him and was superlative last season. Now he just needs to do it again … and again … and again …

2. Andrei Markov(notes), D: The Habs are a much different (ie. better) team when their most proficient defenseman is healthy, which hasn’t been the case in the past two seasons.

3. Mike Cammalleri, LW: Determined goal-scorer who thrives in the Montreal pressure-cooker.

4. Tomas Plekanec(notes), C: He’s not a 100-point superstar or physical force, but he’s a superb playmaker who’s good for 20-plus goals while capably centering the top line and setting up the power play.

5. Erik Cole(notes), LW: Speedy scorer drives to the net – and that’s how he gets hurt, too. Four years and $18 million feels risky, but the upside is a veteran leader who contributes 25 goals and 60 points.

Best-Case Scenario: Price’s ascension continues, Markov returns healthy and the top two lines score enough to propel Montreal on another magical playoff run.

Reality Check: The Canadiens are a couple injuries away from a top-10 draft pick.

4. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Five Most Important Players

1. Dion Phaneuf(notes), D: When he’s on, he’s a skating, scoring, hitting machine. When he’s off, there’s defensive breakdowns by the bushel.

2. James Reimer(notes), G: It’s pretty simple – if he’s for real, the Leafs are a playoff team. If he isn’t, they’re not.

3. Phil Kessel(notes), RW: Fast-quick scorer has worked to improve other aspects of his game, but he’s still all about the snipe.

4. Tim Connolly(notes), C: No. 1 center will have plenty of passing options among Toronto’s wingers, but his durability is ever uncertain.

5. Nazem Kadri(notes), C: If young dazzler steps up offensively, the Leafs could have three dangerous scoring lines.

Best-Case Scenario: Reimer rules, the defense is as good on the ice as it looks on paper and Toronto’s scoring-by-committee approach provides abundant offense.

Reality Check: GM Brian Burke’s fine rebuild relies an awful lot on a young goalie with 35 career NHL starts.

5. OTTAWA SENATORS

Five Most Important Players

1. Daniel Alfredsson(notes), RW: The longtime captain and pulse of the team missed the final 28 games last season after requiring back surgery. Is it too much to ask the 39-year-old to bounce back?

2. Jason Spezza(notes), C: A truly elite talent who needs to be a factor every shift.

3. Craig Anderson(notes), G: If he’s not the answer in net, it’s another long season in Ottawa.

4. Sergei Gonchar(notes), D: Let’s hope last season was an aberration, not the beginning of the end for the 37-year-old veteran of more than 1,000 games.

5. Erik Karlsson(notes), D: The silver lining in last year’s cloud.

Best-Case Scenario: Everything that went wrong last season goes right this year, and the Sens hang around the playoff race.

Reality Check: Even if Alfredsson and Spezza play all 82 games, Ottawa is short-staffed up front and in tough to win with any consistency.