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Healthy Crosby, Malkin make Pens favorites in East

by Dan Rosen and E.J. Hradek

Several prognosticators around the NHL are saying the Boston Bruins have lined themselves up for a run at a repeat championship season. No one here is going to argue with that, because on paper, the Bruins look as solid as the team that won the Stanley Cup just three months ago.

That doesn't mean they're going to win it all again, though. They'll be in the race, but only New Jersey and Pittsburgh have repeated as Eastern Conference champions since the NHL went to its current conference format in 1993.

Neither of us believes it's going to happen again this season.

So who do we think will take home the Prince of Wales Trophy this season?

Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby will play this season, but that's only part of the reason why the Penguins will represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

Evgeni Malkin is a big reason. He's returning stronger and hungrier than before. Malkin spent the entire offseason in Russia rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee. He's a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and don't be shocked if he contends for the Art Ross Trophy this season. Moreover, Malkin is prepared to be the face of this team if Crosby is unable to start the season.

This is the type of confidence and leadership we haven't seen yet from Malkin.

Marc-Andre Fleury also is a big reason. Let's be honest -- he is a superstar goalie. He belongs in the discussion with all the other top goaltenders in the NHL. Imagine where the Penguins would have been last season had Fleury not been so good after such a disastrous start.

Dan Bylsma is another big reason. He was the best coach in the NHL last season (that's not my opinion, that's the opinion of broadcasters around the League who vote on the Jack Adams Award), and there's no reason to think he won't be among the best again this season. Bylsma actually did his best work without the services of Crosby and Malkin. He has this team's attention.

That brings us to the rest of the team. The Penguins are solid from front to back, with many selfless players who learned last season that they don't need Crosby and Malkin to be a good team. Many of them re-signed this summer because they know they've got something special brewing again in Pittsburgh.

Yes, Crosby will play this season and Malkin will find his touch again. Re-insert them into a lineup that already is buzzing with confidence and it's a recipe for success -- a recipe for a championship.

Pittsburgh Penguins

How well are the Penguins built? They're built so well they were able to withstand the midseason injury losses of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and still finish near the very top of the conference. That’s earthquake-proof, my friend!

The Penguins were able to withstand those crippling blows because they're strong in the right places.

GM Ray Shero has created balance on the blue line. Among their top four defenders, the Penguins have two terrific puck-movers (Kris Letang and Paul Martin) and a pair of tough, physical, defensive-minded defensemen (Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek). When you have that kind of strength on defense, you can survive major problems.

Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 32 | ASST: 34 | PTS: 66
SOG: 161 | +/-: 20
The Penguins also have an elite goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, who already has a Stanley Cup on his resume. This "Flower" has proven he won't wilt in a big spot.

Malkin returns to the lineup healthy and hungry for a big season. That's bad news for the Pens' conference rivals. It's no stretch to envision the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner scoring 100 points this season.

As for the Pens' other star center, I expect Crosby to return to active duty sometime in the first half of the season. In fact, after speaking with him earlier in the month, I could see him returning sooner rather than later. When that happens, coach Dan Bylsma can go back to rolling Crosby, Malkin and not-to-be-forgotten third center Jordan Staal. I'm sure opposing teams can wait to see that again.

With those centers in place, the Penguins' wingers figure to be more productive. James Neal, for example, could be an even more dangerous sniper working alongside Crosby or Malkin. The Pens also added highly skilled veteran Steve Sullivan, whose creative game could give the club's power play a boost.

Making preseason picks always is an iffy business. And there's definitely a big if surrounding Crosby. I think he'll be back, though. In that case, with a healthy group, I believe the Pens are built to go the distance.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl. Follow E.J. Hradek on Twitter at: @EJHradek_NHL
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