With the NHL’s regular season poised to begin tomorrow, it’s time to make some NHL Eastern Conference predictions.

Sidney Crosby

Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby won his first Stanley Cup in 2009. He will win his second in 2011.

Which teams will surprise? Which teams will disappoint? Here are the Big Mouth’s rankings, from best predicted finish, to worst, in the NHL East.

1. Washington Capitals – Their offence, led by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom is unquestionably one of the best in the league. On the blueline, Mike Green has become one of the game’s elite defencemen, adding to the offensive component.

Alex Ovechkin

Last season, Capitals' superstar Alex Ovechkin scored 109 regular-season points...but then his Caps faltered in the playoffs against Montreal

The Caps will dominate this season despite the fact that they boast(?) Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth in goal.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins – The Penguins should have reached the Stanley Cup Final last spring. They did not. This year, they will. Sidney Crosby is too good a player to let another season slip away. The loss of Sergei Gonchar may affect the power play a little…but not much. The Penguins are still strong everywhere.

3. New Jersey Devils – One of these years, goaltender Martin Brodeur is going to begin a slide to mediocrity. Devils’ fans, this might be that year. Fortunately, New Jersey has two of the best young players in the game up front in Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Those two will score at will.

4. Boston Bruins – Marc Savard’s health question marks leave a huge hole in the Bruins’ offence. They still have scoring, though, with David Krejci, Milan Lucic and the ageless wonder, Mark Recchi. Zdeno Chara is the league’s most massive force on the blueline and will eat up major minutes. To me, the big question is in goal. Will Tuukka Rask be an elite goaltender this season? If he is, the Bruins will be a great team.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers’ top two lines may be the best in hockey. And if Chris Pronger dominates the blueline like he can, it may not matter that goaltending is, once again, a massive question mark in the City of Brotherly Love.

6. Buffalo Sabres – Last year, the Sabres finished 3rd in the East based on Ryan Miller’s performance in goal. Period. If he is again the best netminder in the NHL, the Sabres will be right there. If Miller falters, Buffalo will be in trouble. Derek Roy can light it up offensively, and sophomore Tyler Myers will have to work hard because he won’t surprise anyone this year.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning – Steven Stamkos may just be the most exciting player in the game, and that includes you-know-who in Washington. 35-year old Martin St. Louis, with 94 points last season, is showing no signs of slowing down. In goal, the Bolts are not strong, to say the least. Dan Ellis and Mike Smith must play way above their heads to Tampa to succeed.

Carey Price

As an AHL rookie, Carey Price won the 2007 Calder Cup with the Hamilton Bulldogs. All he needs is a little confidence to return to greatness.

8. Montréal Canadiens – If Canadiens’ fans can learn to lay off Carey Price, and just let the kid play to build his confidence, he can have an excellent season. Michael Cammalleri will never dominate games the way he did in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he is still an offensive force. And D PK Subban turned people’s heads last spring. But can he do the same over the course of an entire season?

9. Carolina Hurricanes – As Eric Staal goes, so goes the Canes’ offence. Brandon Sutter should be able to improve greatly on his 40 points of last season. The Canes’ ability to keep the puck out of their own net will determine their fate. Cam Ward and Justin Peters provide a reliable tandem in goal, but everyone on the blueline is a potential concern.

10. New York Rangers – Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best in the game…and he’s absolutely wasted in Manhattan. RW Marian Gaborik is a superstar but, with no one to help him offensively, the Rangers aren’t going to improve at all on last year’s 9th-place showing in the East. Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto have potential on the blueline, but that’s all it is right now – potential.

11. Toronto Maple LeafsThe Hockey News wrote that the only way the Leafs will succeed is if Phil Kessel scores 60 goals and the goaltending tandem of Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Jonas Gustavsson win games on their own. Know what? Don’t bet against either of those. The Leafs’ overall problem is scoring but, if they can win more one-goal games than they lose, they will show a massive improvement.

12. Ottawa Senators – The days of the Sens reaching the Stanley Cup Final – as they did in 2007 – are looooooong gone. Goaltending is a question mark in Ottawa. It has been forever. Last year, Jason Spezza had just 57 points in 60 games. That is gross for a player of his calibre. RW Daniel Alfredsson had a point-a-game last year…but he’s 37 years old!

13. Florida Panthers – If someone offered me Panthers’ season tix, I think I would have to decline. Peter DeBoer was a great coach in major junior, but he’s still got nothing to work with in Florida. Centre Stephen Weiss is better than a 60-point player. Now he has to prove it. And when Bryan McCabe is your top blueliner, trouble awaits.

14. Atlanta Thrashers – With GM Rick Dudley and head coach Craig Ramsay beginning their first full seasons in Atlanta, the Thrashers will be a different team than during the Don Waddell era. But they won’t be any better. When Nik Antropov is your top forward, you are just treading water. On the blueline and in goal, there are massive gaps. Last year, the Thrashers finished 10th in the east. They won’t do that well this season.

15. New York Islanders – Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving along. Other than star-in-the-making John Tavares, the Islanders are going nowhere fast. And, because he’s seemingly always injured, netminder Rick DiPietro has yet to show any reason why he was chosen first overall in the NHL’s Entry Draft TEN years ago.

Eastern Conference Final prediction – Pittsburgh over Washington.

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