Burning Atlantic Division questions

JEFF FRANK, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:13 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- In the post-lockout era, no division has sent more teams to the playoffs than the Atlantic. More importantly, the last three Eastern Conference Stanley Cup representatives have all come from this division. Still, there are many questions left to be answered.

WILL ILYA KOVALCHUK AND MARTIN BRODEUR LIFT THE DEVILS INTO THE SECOND ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS?

New Jersey invested a lot in Kovalchuk, Since acquiring the right-winger, the Devils have given away Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, as well as multiple first-round picks, and a second and third in next year's entry draft.

Despite winning the division the last two seasons, and finishing second in 2007-08, New Jersey has been ousted in the first round all three years. Trading for Kovalchuk last year did not alter the status quo but the two-time 50-goal scorer cannot solely be blamed for the loss to Philadelphia.

Martin Brodeur must take the majority of the responsibility as his goals- against average in the last three playoff rounds stands at 2.80, compared to 2.24 during the three regular seasons.

On the other hand, this year could be different as the three-time Stanley Cup- winning goalie might not be as worn out come playoff time due to the possibility of fewer regular season starts. (New Jersey finally has a capable backup in Johan Hedberg to lessen his load.)

Some folks could point to the 2008-09 season to counteract that argument since Brodeur only played 31 games that year, but they forget he was in goal for 21 of the final 22 regular season contests prior to the seven-game series with Carolina.

This should be the year New Jersey finally reaches the second round.

CAN THE FLYERS' GOALIES LEAD THE TEAM BACK TO THE STANLEY CUP FINALS?

After Chicago won its first Stanley Cup in almost 50 years, the second biggest story of 2009-10 had to be the rise of Michael Leighton.

Drafted by the Blackhawks in 1999, the 29-year-old journeyman almost stole the game's biggest prize by leading the seventh-seeded Flyers into the finals. When you consider his career record prior to joining Philadelphia (the second time) was 18-35-2, the postseason ride was even more of an improbability.

Unfortunately, Leighton injured his back early in the preseason and will miss at least the first month of the year.

The fight for the starting position is now between Brian Boucher and newcomer Sergei Bobrovsky.

Boucher was the hero in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal round versus the Devils. However, the 33-year-old was 9-18-3 during the regular season with a 2.76 GAA and a save percentage below .900.

Bobrovsky was 9-22-3 last year in the KHL but his save percentage was a solid .919. In addition, his preseason play has been spectacular, as he was 3-0-1 with a 1.39 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage prior to Sunday. Still, he has zero NHL experience which could be a cause for concern in October.

Whatever goalie gets the No. 1 gig, look for a slight regression, particularly if Chris Pronger misses the start of the season with an injured knee.

WHO WILL ASSIST SIDNEY CROSBY AND EVGENI MALKIN IN PITTSBURGH?

Some skaters thrive playing alongside superstars while others, such as Alexei Ponikarovsky (2 goals in 16 games with the Penguins last season), struggle.

Coming into this season, Pittsburgh's plan was to move Evgeni Malkin to the wing and bump Jordan Staal up to the second line. However, Staal is on the shelf with a damaged right foot.

Despite Staal's injury, Malkin has remained on the wing, as veteran Mike Comrie has been slotted in the middle.

With the loss of 21-goal scorer Bill Guerin, the Pens must find someone else to set off the red light. There is always the chance that Malkin and Crosby could join forces on the top line but the other lines would suffer tremendously, especially since many NHL teams are now going with three scoring lines instead of two.

WHAT HAPPENS IF MARIAN GABORIK GETS INJURED?

Not a single team is tied to the fortunes of one offensive player as much as the Rangers are to Marian Gaborik. When healthy, he is one of the most dynamic performers in the game. Unfortunately, the star forward has missed 17 games or more in four of the last six seasons.

Gaborik scored 19% of his team's goals last season (42 of 222) while not a single player potted more than 20. Furthermore, the only major offensive addition this season has been Alexander Frolov, who spent the majority of last year in Terry Murray's doghouse with the Kings.

If Gaborik's groin acts up again, or something else goes wrong, New York will be hard-pressed to win many games considering its defence is very shaky after the first pairing of Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi.

WILL THE ISLES FINISH WITH THE WORST RECORD IN THE LEAGUE?

Last year, the opposition had zero problems putting the puck past Islanders goalies, as New York finished 28th in goals against. To shore up the defence, the Isles brought in a pair of veteran stay-at-home blueliners in Mark Eaton and James Wisniewski.

Unfortunately, neither player will be paired alongside Mark Streit, who will miss at least the first four months of the season after undergoing successful shoulder surgery last weekend.

Offensively, New York is hoping second-year centre John Tavares can follow Steve Stamkos' footsteps with a dominating sophomore season. But once again, the injury bug has swallowed up a huge asset as Tavares's right-hand man, Kyle Okposo, is out 2-3 months due to shoulder surgery.

The only positive that might come out of this season is the likelihood of another No. 1 pick in the league's entry draft only two years after selecting Tavares back in 2009.


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