Pittsburgh Penguins ones to beat

The defending champions are Sam McCaig's pick to win the Stanley Cup this season but it is too close to call.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The defending Stanley Cup champions are the team to beat. They are only the fourth seed in the East, but that is the same seed they had last year when they won the title. They seem to have paced themselves this season, an approach that only a team who have reached the finals two years running would take. The Penguins are healthy and ready to make another run.

New Jersey Devils: Martin Brodeur's Devils keep on going and going, although their past few play-off forays have not been nearly as deep. Still, with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, the offence is as potent as it has ever been - which means the Devils have a great shot at another Cup. Buffalo Sabres: Boy, that Ryan Miller is something else, as anyone who watched the Olympics would attest. And the Sabres are a close-knit, well-coached team and they play for each other. Not to mention, they are due good news on the championship front. The East is there for the taking, too, although explosive Pittsburgh and Washington will not go quietly.

San Jose Sharks: The best regular season team consistently disappoint in the play-offs. San Jose need to make a charge this spring, until the conference final, to justify keeping the core together. It says here (gulp) they will do it. Vancouver Canucks: There is a good chance the Canucks will be the only Canadian team standing after the first round. On paper, they are legitimate contenders with great goaltending and ample offence. The blueline is banged up, so it will be up to Roberto Luongo to overcome that fact.

Washington Capitals: Sidney Crosby won the Cup last year; logic dictates it is Alex Ovechkin's turn this time. But with that defence and goaltending, it will be tough. Chicago Blackhawks: Young and skilled, fast and exciting. Chicago appear to have it all ? except guaranteed-not-to-tarnish goaltending, which is a prerequisite for winning in the play-offs. That puts a lot of pressure on Antti Niemi, the first-year NHL goaltender.

Detroit Red Wings: Remember after the Winter Games, when the Wings were in ninth place in the West and in danger of missing the play-offs? That phase passed quickly as Detroit got healthy and moved up to fifth. Jimmy Howard, the goalie, gets his first taste of the play-offs and it is a favourable first-round match-up against Phoenix. Detroit are anxious to show they remain an elite team.

Nashville Predators: The anonymous Preds win with hard work and defence, but they have got skill and are scoring, too. Nashville are underrated and dangerous - and overdue a play-off charge. Philadelphia Flyers: They made the play-offs thanks to a shoot-out win on the final day of the season. Despite a less-than-intimidating goalie tandem of Brian Boucher and Sebastien Caron, the Flyers have a lot of firepower up front and Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timon on defence. The parts are there, but Philadelphia have not been able to put it all together. Montreal Canadiens: Never underestimate the Habs in the play-offs, even if they are a shadow of the franchise that won 24 Stanley Cups. The match-up against Washington is not that bad; Montreal can skate with the Caps, and Jaroslav Halak, their goalie, can beat anyone on a given night.

Phoenix Coyotes: No team deserve the play-offs more than the Coyotes, who have not seen the post-season since 2002 and have endured years of off-ice turmoil. Too bad they drew Detroit in the first round.

Boston Bruins: The team that won the Eastern Conference last season waited until the final week of the regular season to punch their play-off ticket this time around. Blame injuries, Tim Thomas's return to earth on the heels of his Vezina Trophy-winning '08-09 campaign, and a step backwards by every young forward not named Patrice Bergeron. Colorado Avalanche: The Avs are young and surprising, but running into the hungry Sharks in the first round will not be fun.

Los Angeles Kings: Back in the play-offs for the first time since 2002, the Kings are exciting. Unfortunately, Jonathan Quick, their goalie, struggled down the stretch. Not this year, but it is going to be a fun decade on the West Coast. Ottawa Senators: Too many injuries to be too serious a contender. sports@thenational.ae