While the Western Conference champion is likely to come from a group of three or maybe four teams, the East looks wide open and could be won by as many as eight clubs. Here's a breakdown of each division in the East and teams' NHL futures odds.
A bit of a statistical oddity at sportsbooks on the odds to win the Atlantic and then the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh has been the East favorite nearly all season but has been surpassed by Tampa Bay, now +450 on NHL odds, for the top spot. Yet the Lightning are +175 second favorites in the Atlantic behind the Montreal Canadiens (+160) even though Tampa Bay currently leads the division by three points over the Habs (Montreal has three games in hand).
Led by Steven Stamkos, who is tied for third in the NHL with 23 goals, the Lightning are a fun team to watch if you like offense as they lead the league in scoring. This is a young, talented team that should be good for years. The worry is that sometimes the Lightning lose focus as they tend to get blown out occasionally. For example, Tampa Bay was recently crushed 7-3 in Philadelphia and 6-3 in Pittsburgh. It behooves the Lightning to get the top seed in the East because they have one of the NHL's best home records but are only around a .500 club off home ice.
It appears that Montreal will be the only realistic shot that Canada has of bringing home Lord Stanley's Cup for the first time since 1993. Toronto is mediocre and already fired Coach Randy Carlyle. Ottawa isn't a playoff team (and already fired its coach), Winnipeg is simply average, Vancouver is a nice surprise but not a legit contender, Calgary is sliding backward, and Edmonton is the NHL's worst team. The Habs are +500 on NHL odds to win the East and they have the kind of goaltender in Carey Price who can carry a team to the Stanley Cup -- or an Olympic gold medal.
The Detroit Red Wings' chances of winning the Atlantic took a hit when the team lost No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard to a slightly torn groin this past weekend that could cost him a month on the sideline and knocks him out of the All-Star Game. The Wings already are without No. 2 Jonas Gustavsson with a shoulder injury. Detroit is +500 to win the Atlantic.
Boston (+250 on NHL odds to win division) has been a disappointment but might be close to turning things around with a three-game winning streak entering Tuesday. It's hard to fathom how a team with so much forward depth ranks just 21st in scoring. Veteran forward Simon Gagne won't be back to help as he won't return this season. He took an indefinite leave of absence Dec. 10 for personal reasons.
It's the final season for the New York Islanders playing way out on Long Island before the team moves to Brooklyn's Barclays Center next season. Could the Isles head to Brooklyn as Eastern Conference champions? Don't rule it out. New York leads the division and is +200 to win it at sportsbooks. Captain John Tavares has bounced back from his serious injury suffered in the Sochi Olympics to lead the team with 19 goals and 39 points. The trades for defenseman Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy both have hugely worked out, with each guy having 19 points and a combined plus/minus of plus-16. Goalie Jaroslav Halak nearly carried the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup a few years ago and could again with this high-scoring group. The Isles are +500 co-second favorites to win the East behind Tampa Bay.
No team in the league is hotter than the Rangers, who entered Tuesday having won 13 of 14 games for the first time since 1973. The Blueshirts just finished off a three-game sweep in California for the first time in franchise history. Rick Nash is tied for the NHL lead with 26 goals, and Henrik Lundqvist has been typically good with 20 wins and a 2.26 GAA. He has five shutouts and backup Cam Talbot, who would be starting for some teams, has three and a 2.14 GAA. The Rangers are +250 at sportsbooks to win the division and +500 to repeat as East champions.
No team can match the 1-2 punch of Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (47 points) and Sidney Crosby (44 points), although Crosby may have lost his spot as the favorite for the Hart Trophy. The Penguins have been Eastern favorites much of the season but now are +500 with the Islanders and Rangers. Pittsburgh is even money to win the division. The Penguins have dealt with a lot of injuries and a handful of cases of the mumps. The team has lost defenseman Olli Maatta and forward Pascal Dupuis for the season. Maatta had nine points and played 20:43 minutes a night, while Dupuis had six goals and five assists in 16 games.
NHL Free Picks: I like the Rangers to win the East because they have a very proven goalie, a superstar scorer in Nash and the money to acquire help if need be.