We are nearing the end of my search for teams that Ottawa will finish ahead of this season in the Eastern Conference. In case you haven’t been following along, I embarked on this task after reading The Hockey News online, where they predicted the Senators would finish last in the East. I have been going along in alphabetical order and today look at the Penguins, Lightning and Maple Leafs.
The Penguins finished fourth in the Eastern Conference (but tied for 2nd in points), 32 points ahead of the Senators last season. They managed to do this without Sidney Crosby for exactly half the season, and Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for almost that much time. Still, the Penguins rode Marc-Andre Fleury and the emerging star Kris Letang to one of the league’s best records. Looking ahead to this season, Crosby is still feeling some effects of the post concussion problems that might force him to miss the start of the season or maybe even longer. However, Malkin will be back, a full season from James Neal and the addition of Steve Sullivan will take some of the pressure off Crosby to return to early.
CAN THE SENATORS FINISH HIGHER THAN THE PENGUINS? Even without Crosby, the Penguins are an elite team, so no chance.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Lightning made a 23 point improvement last season from the previous one, to put themselves among the top clubs in the conference. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier are the leaders, and the only impact player they lost was Simon Gagne. They are again rolling the dice on veteran Dwayne Roloson between the pipes, but they have added a capable backup in Mathieu Garon. I don’t know if they will be as good as they were last season, but the 29 point cushion they had on the Senators last season means they are safe.
CAN THE SENATORS FINISH HIGHER THAN THE LIGHTNING? Not this year, they are too dynamic.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
This might be painful for Sens fans. As much as we like to pan the Leafs, Brian Burke has assembled what could be the best blue line in the East. Led by Dion Phaneuf, the sextet they can field is very impressive, so much so that Mike Komisarek will likely be a spare part or shipped out of town. Up front, Tim Connolly will help Phil Kessel find his potential and solidify the first line. I know durability is an issue when it comes to Connolly, but if he can play 65-70 games he will make a difference. The second line is solid and will be a factor offensively. The biggest question is in goal, where both James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson have some proving to do to make themselves true number one goalies. Toronto was 11 points ahead of Ottawa last season, a deficit that is definitely surmountable.
CAN THE SENATORS FINISH HIGHER THAN THE LEAFS? Let the Battle Of Ontario resume, whoever wins the season series between the two could determine who finishes higher in the standings.
WILL THEY? I have to say Yes. Its in my nature.
Tomorrow I will wrap up with the Washington Capitals and the Winnipeg Jets, and put a wrap on the series.
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Topics: Dion Phaneuf, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Martin St Louis, Ottawa Senators, Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tim Connolly, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vincent Lecavalier