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Dark Horse in the East.

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For the past month or so Zanstorm and I have been arguing about who we think is going to go deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs. My desire would be a Canucks/Sens or Canucks/Habs final, and not because I'm some kind of anti-american zealot. In fact, I have cheered for the American squad in each of the past three finals.

The Senators have developed the reputation of "Great in the regular season, Lousy in the playoffs", with much thanks going to the Leafs for beating them in three straight playoff series (2001, 2002, 2003). This reputation was largely correct until last season, when they waltzed through three Eastern conference opponents before being beaten by the Ducks in the Finals. This season has been quite a different story for the Sens though. After coming out of the gate in fantastic form, the team has flopped and floundered. They are certainly not a favorite going into the playoffs, and I think this may just be a good thing. Although it's impossible to not feel the pressure during the playoffs, no one is going to be expecting much of anything from Ottawa. While it's hard to think of them as a dark horse or a cinderella team, they may just have some surprises in store come next week.

On the flip side of this equations is the Montreal Canadiens. Not a lot of people (myself included) gave this team much chance of making the playoffs, let alone winning their division and challenging for the number 1 seed in the East. But as they continued their torrid pace through March, you can be sure the fans in Montreal started to anticipate great things for April, May, and June. Am I the only one outside the province of Quebec who thinks this team is still being overlooked?

Two different teams with two vastly different regular seasons (though separated by only six points, thanks Gary!). I think it would be quite the surprise to many if either team were to come out of the east.

Looking at the standings in the East, it is tough to really call one team a "dark horse" at all. There is a lot of that "parity" stuff going around the league, especially along the Atlantic coast. Even if Washington were to somehow squeak into the Playoffs, I wouldn't rule out a run by them (Kolzig has done it before, and I'd never count out a team that has Ovechkin). New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Boston, Carolina... even struggling Philly could do some damage. I wouldn't entirely rule out any of those teams come April 8th.

It all leads to the one team that Zany insists is heading to the Finals. The New York Rangers. For a long time I disagreed, citing their young goaltender, the lackluster playoff efforts of some of their players, their no-name defensive core, and the fact that it is the New York Rangers (1994 was a screw job! The fix was in!). But over the past two weeks I have really come around on the idea. Even when Jagr has an off-night, they have secondary scoring to pick up the pace. Lundqvist has been dynamite in net, and when he hasn't been, Valiquette has more than picked up the slack. Gomez and Drury have both proven to be playoff performers, and you've got Brendan Shanahan who is playing like he was born in 1979 rather than 1969. Combine that with a very serviceable blueline led by solid D-men like Mara, Rozsival, and Backman (and young studs like Staal and Girardi), and you've got the makings of a Cup contender.

A cup contender that no one seems to be talking much about.