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ARLINGTON, Va. – The gang's almost entirely back for the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, Steven Stamkos re-upped with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the retooled Florida Panthers look ready for their close up.
Get ready for a competitive race among those four teams in the Eastern Conference. Throw a healthy Carey Price back in net for the Montreal Canadiens and they could challenge, too, especially if defenseman Shea Weber fits well after a stunning summer trade from Nashville for P.K. Subban.
Of course, it starts and ends with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins.
"They're the Stanley Cup champs, they're the No. 1," Capitals right winger Justin Williams said. "They're the team to beat until somebody knocks them off."
Pittsburgh was the best team in the playoffs last spring, going through the New York Rangers, Capitals, Lightning and San Jose Sharks to win the fourth Cup in franchise history. Washington was the best team in the regular season, 11 points ahead of the next-closest team, and is again the Metropolitan Division favorite.
Here are some things to watch in the East:
SUNSHINE STATE HOCKEY
Don't look now but two of the best young defensemen in hockey are playing in Florida: Aaron Ekblad for the Panthers and Victor Hedman for the Lightning. The Panthers have Finnish standout Aleksander Barkov and a real chance to win the Atlantic Division. Florida also added defensemen Keith Yandle and Jason Demers as part of its makeover and could take the next step after a surprise playoff appearance.
"Some of the guys we signed in the offseason gave us some more speed, a little more offense," president of hockey operations Dale Tallon said. "We've had two winning seasons in a row and we've made the playoffs and I think the fact that we got beat in the first round will be a motivating factor."
Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 50 goals last season and isn't showing any signs of slowing down at age 31. He and the Capitals still haven't won the Cup, and with several key players set to be free agents, this could be their best and last chance.
Washington isn't just Ovechkin, as Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Braden Holtby and all-star centers Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom are all at the top of their games. More regular-season dominance should follow, but the playoffs are always the question.
PRICE IS RIGHT
After missing most of last season with a knee injury, a healthy Price is a welcome sight for the Canadiens. Price looked back to his old self winning the World Cup of Hockey with Canada, which general manager Marc Bergevin said "puts everyone's mind at ease, even our fans." The 2015 Hart, Vezina and Pearson winner is good enough to carry the Canadiens to the playoffs on his shoulders.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
The Islanders got deeper by adding wingers Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and P.A. Parenteau and defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. The Rangers got younger by signing college free agent Jimmy Vesey and trading for Mika Zibanejad. John Tavares and the Islanders are looking to build off their longest playoff run in 23 years in their second season in Brooklyn. Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers are trying to stay at the top because the elite goalie isn't getting any younger.
Top pick Auston Matthews is immediately the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs under coach Mike Babcock. It'll be a while before Toronto is a playoff contender, but Matthews at 18 was a man among men playing professionally in Switzerland and looked comfortable against elite competition at the World Cup at 19.
"He's shown that he's going to be responsible on both sides of the puck, has a great sense of how to use his body on the ice," said Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan, who had Matthews for Team North America at the World Cup. "He's a big man that protects pucks well. He's able to use speed when he needs it."
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