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The 2010 NHL season on an overtime goal by Chicago Blackhawks left winger Patrick Kane. This incredible finish landed the Stanley Cup back in Chicago for the first time in 49 years. With the amazing finishes of both the Stanley Cup Finals and the Gold Medal game between Canada and the United States in the 2010 Winter Olympics, hockey has gained some popularity back in the United States after setting one of the highest television ratings for the NHL in quite some time. Last year’s regular season and playoffs lived up to the expectations of many and the 2010-2011 season is shaping up to do the same with the promising skills and talent of the new generation of hockey.

As is the case with just about every NHL season, there are a lot of new faces in new places this year. Probably the biggest transaction during the offseason was the Chicago Blackhawks not resigning Antti Niemi their goaltender that went 16-6 in the playoffs last season. After the Chicago said “NO” to Niemi, Niemi is taking his talents to Northern California to join forces with Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks who were the number 1 seed in the Western Conference last season. With the addition of Niemi between the pipes, San Jose has arguably the strongest team in the Western Conference with the Vancouver Canucks competing for the top spot. With Roberto Luongo in goal and last year’s Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin leading this team, Vancouver could easily walk away with the Northwest Division championship this year. Other teams to watch for coming out of the West this year are the Coyotes, Kings, Red Wings, and Flames. The Phoenix Coyotes were clearly the surprise team of the NHL season last year. It was Phoenix’s first playoff appearance since the 2001 season. What makes Phoenix’s playoff run even more impressive is that the team was on the verge of bankruptcy only a year ago and having “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky fail as head coach, the team was not shaping up to be in contention for the 2010 season. Ilya Bryzgalov is back in goal for this season. Bryzgalov is the reason why the Coyotes made the playoffs with his .920 save percentage and was second in the league in shut outs. The Kings are showing promise for the future with the emergence of their young studs, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown who combined for 137 points. As usual, the Red Wings are expected to do well with the core of the team still together and with the signing of the ageless Mike Modano. But the Red Wings are a year older and not getting any younger. The Red Wings definitely have the experience but youth is not on their side. Furthermore, the Red Wings are definitely going to make the playoffs but will they be able to keep up with the young Western Conference during the playoffs? Now the Calgary Flames are a team that did not make the playoffs last who are hungry and have a lot to prove since they only missed the playoffs by 10 points. With the veteran leadership of Jamore Iginla and Craig Conroy, the Flames should be back in the playoffs this season. The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the clear favorites to win the West again this year but with losing star goaltender Antti Niemi and losing half of the roster including Dustin Byfuglien who cleared out the middle for the Blackhawks during the playoffs. The Western Conference does have potential to have a sleeper this season but put your money on the Vancouver Canucks to win this Conference this year.

Switching over to the Eastern Conference, there are several teams that have talent but this conference is home to the worst division in hockey being the Southeast Division. This division only had one team making the playoffs last season, that team being the Washington Capitals who are led by superstar Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin was once again in strong contention for the Hart Trophy after finishing top 10 in all major offensive categories and missing 10 games. The major problem with the Capitals is that they have no one that has stepped up to be Ovechkin’s sidekick. In all sports, one great player can get you to the playoffs and that is it, but one superstar with above average talent can win you a championship. If Capitals manage would be willing to open up their wallets to get 1 more person on the line with Ovechkin and maybe another on defense, the Capitals would be a dominate team but until they do that, they are 1 and out in the playoffs. Moving to the Northeast Division, Buffalo is looking like the favorite out there with Olympic Hero Ryan Miller in goal. Miller had a .929 save percentage which ranked him 2nd in the NHL and was ranked 4th in wins last season. Ryan Miller has become to best goaltender in the NHL but needs help from him scores like Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy who combined for 54 goals last year. The Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadians are looking to be contenders for the East as well. Boston is looking to make some noise this year after a premature exit from the playoffs last season. This team is out to prove that they can be the heavily favored teams such as Buffalo and Pittsburg with the help of Patrice Bergeron who led the team in points last season. Montreal did not surprise a lot of people when they made the playoffs last year, but did surprise people when they made the Eastern Conference finals as the number 8 seed. This team is looking to ride out their hot streak from last season into the 2011 season. Now the Atlantic division is full of talent with the New Jersey Devil, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers being the front runners in that division. Philadelphia is currently the defending Eastern Conference Champions and after their disappointing showing in the Stanley Cup Finals, they want to make a statement this year. Chris Pronger, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards are leading the charge this year for the Flyers. Pronger is consistently rated as one of the best defensemen in the game and this year is no different. The Flyers are looking to split time between goaltenders this year with Michael Leighton and Brain Boucher. Whoever is the most successful out of the 2 will most likely start in the playoffs. The New Jersey Devils are coming off of a very impressive 2010 campaign finishing second in the Eastern Conference last season. The Devils are expecting Zack Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk who signed a 15 year $100 Million deal in the off season, to carry the load and lead the Devils to another high seeding in the playoffs. And of course the most important part of winning a championship is goaltender and the Devils still have arguably the best goaltender in history between the pipes this season. At the age of 38, Martin Brodeur was top 10 in all major goaltending categories and does not show any signs of slowing down. Then of course there are the Pittsburgh Penguins who have to complete package, goaltending, defense, offense and the face of hockey, Sidney Crosby who had 109 points last season. His sidekick Evgeni Malkin is back for another season and is reported to be in the best physical shape of his life. Marc-Andre Fleury is back in net after having a down year but is looking to prove himself worthy again of being a Stanley Cup winner. The Penguins have to be the favorite going into the season despite their early exit from the season only a couple of months ago.

For this year’s Stanley Cup Finals I like the Penguins to win the East and the Canucks the win the West. Canucks will win the Stanley cup this year in 7 games because playoff series is hockey always seem to go the distance but I do ultimately think that more talented teams will prevail this year and the Stanley Cup will find its way to Vancouver this season.

– TJ Acierno

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