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Philadelphia Flyers fans

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 Kovalchuk saga

The trials and tribulations of Ilya Kovalchuk's attempt to sign a long-term contract with the New Jersey Devils held most of the hockey world captive this offseason. After rejecting the initial offer on grounds that it was created to circumvent the salary cap, the NHL approved a second version that will pay the Russian forward $100 million over 15 years. But the drama led to new rules on the structure and salary cap weight of future long-term (five years or more) contracts.

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.

Lightning rising

No team underwent as significant or complete of a makeover this summer as Tampa Bay. First the Lightning switched owners for the second time in three years to Jeff Vinik, who in turn brought in Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman as general manager, and change rippled through the organization. There is genuine enthusiasm around a Lightning squad that finally seems stable and boasts a formidable top-six forward group highlighted by rising star Steven Stamkos and franchise figures Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Will the dramatic new look bear playoff fruit?

--Katie Carrera

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