Story lines to watch
Matt Slocum/Associated Press
It's anyone's game
As the Flyers proved last spring, even the most unlikely of contenders can reach the Stanley Cup finals if they hit their stride at the right time in the salary cap era. A single shootout goal gave Philadelphia a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers on the final day of the regular season, pushing the Flyers into the playoffs. While there may be clear-cut favorites in each conference and division, the distribution of talent across the NHL has evened out considerably in recent seasons, making it difficult to rule many teams out of the playoff conversation.
A tougher East
Across the Eastern Conference, teams added more snarl and enforcement to their lineups. The Rangers signed Derek Boogaard, Philadelphia added Jody Shelley and Washington brought in a legitimate heavyweight presence with D.J. King. There also are several tough guys already entrenched, including Colton Orr (Toronto), Eric Godard (Pittsburgh) and Eric Boulton (Atlanta). Will any of these changes significantly alter a team's trajectory? Probably not, but they could affect the makeup of numerous contests.
The Winter Classic
The Capitals get their turn in the marquee event when they take on the Penguins in the NHL's fourth annual Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day. As if the league-wide spotlight on Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and the teams' rivalry isn't bright enough, attention on the star-studded franchises will be magnified on HBO in the months leading up to the contest. In each previous Winter Classic, the road team has gone on to reach, and ultimately lose in, the Stanley Cup finals.