Two years ago the Washington Capitals 46 more than the second-place Canucks. Last season, the Caps ranked 20th in the league in goals scored with 224.
After a 7-0 loss to the Rangers last Dec. 12, the Caps changed to a defense- first philosophy and lowered their goals-against average from 2.72 (16th in the league two years ago) to 2.29 (fourth best in the NHL). However, the club failed when it counted most - in the postseason.
With an experienced goaltender in the fold (Tomas Vokoun) and the opportunity to move Brooks Laich into a more defensive role as the third line center, the offense should be able to revert back to the level it was accustomed to in the 2009-10 campaign. Nevertheless, one member of the team has been in the news a lot lately and he is the subject of the Capitals burning issue this season: will Alexander Semin come to the fore in the playoffs?
The oft-injured sniper was recently called out by former teammate Matt Bradley for not giving his all in the postseason and the numbers back it up. After recording 22 points in 21 playoff games in '08 and '09, Semin has scored just four goals with four assists in 16 games over the last two years. Furthermore, he averaged just two shots in last spring's four-game sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay. Conversely, Alex Ovechkin has scored 10 goals with 10 assists in the team's last 16 playoff games after scoring 20 points in 21 games the prior two seasons.
It's almost a given that Washington will make the playoffs. However, whether the Caps make the Eastern Conference finals or not depends on how much Semin wants to change an image that has taken a major hit the last few weeks.
Bold prediction - Marcus Johansson reaches the 50-point plateau.
WILL TAMPA BAY TAKE ITS GAME TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
The team moves into the 2011-12 season with 14 of last year's top 16 scoring leaders back in the fold so it's doubtful the offense will suffer a letdown. On the other hand, the bulk of the defense is getting up there in years as Eric Brewer is 32, Mattias Ohlund is 35, and both Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina are 34. Furthermore, goalie Dwayne Roloson will be 42 on Oct. 12.
Tampa Bay is built to win now, especially with eight unrestricted free agents on its roster. If the defense can hold its own for one more year, the Lightning will once again battle for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Bold Prediction - Mattias Ohlund finally scores his first regular season goal for the Lightning.
WHICH BYFUGLIEN WILL SHOW UP THIS YEAR?
Dustin Byfuglien was the talk of the NHL during the 2009-10 Stanley Cup playoffs with 11 goals in 22 games for the Blackhawks. Atlanta (now Winnipeg) moved him back to defense last season and the eighth-round draft pick continued his scoring touch with 15 tallies (and 25 assists) in his first 41 games. Unfortunately, he was limited to just five goals (and eight helpers) over the second half of the season.
But the worst news was yet to come. After getting arrested Aug. 31 for boating while intoxicated, it was revealed that the defenseman weighed almost 30 lbs. above his playing weight. It's true he does have almost a month to get back in shape. However, it is doubtful he'll come anywhere close to matching his astounding first half numbers.
The rest of the club pretty much stayed intact, outside of Eric Fehr replacing Anthony Stewart, but one has to wonder if the team overachieved, particularly with an 18.3 power play percentage, which was good for fourth best in the Eastern Conference.
Look for Winnipeg to hover around the .500 mark for the third straight year but miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive campaign.
Bold prediction - Blake Wheeler leads the team in scoring.
HOW WILL THE MASSIVE PLAYER TURNOVER AFFECT FLORIDA?
About half of the Panthers roster is made up of players who skated for other teams last season. Still, the time for change was extremely apparent after failing to make the playoffs for over a decade.
No one is denying how much the talent level has increased in Florida but the final chapter will still be the same, especially without Tomas Vokoun in the net. The Panthers could possibly have the worst goalie tandem in the league with Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen between the pipes, and not helping matters any is a defense that has allowed the most shots over the last two seasons combined.
For Florida to have any type of success, it must continue its dominating penalty kill, which ranked sixth in the entire league last year. Unfortunately, the odds of that happening again are exceptionally high.
Bold prediction - Ed Jovanovski actually plays over 60 games this season.
WHAT KIND OF IMPACT WILL BRIAN BOUCHER HAVE ON CAROLINA?
The Hurricanes have made the playoffs just once since winning the Stanley Cup back in 2006. Last year, they missed postseason play by just two points.
Despite Cam Ward's brilliant play, the team still finished 21st in the league with 239 goals allowed and the year before the club ranked 24th. That could change this season with the signing of Brian Boucher. The former Flyer is ten times better than Justin Peters and that should give Ward periods of rest after having to start 74 games last year.
With Boucher on board, look for Ward to start fewer games, especially on back- to-back nights. Last season, he was forced to start nine times from mid- February till the end of the year in both games of back-to-back nights, and in the second game of those contests, he went 2-6-1. For comparison purposes, he was 12-1-2 in his other 15 starts from Feb. 18th onward.
Bold prediction - Jamie McBain gets slotted ahead of Joni Pitkanen on the No. 1 power play unit.
PREDICTED SOUTHEAST DIVISION STANDINGS
1) WASHINGTON 2) TAMPA BAY 3) Carolina 4) Winnipeg 5) Florida
BOLD = PLAYOFF TEAMS