Tightly bunched teams make the Eastern Conference interesting

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WilliamsJustin Williams, Washington Capitals
Williams provided the winning margin in the Caps' 5-2 win over the New York Rangers, notching his first hat trick since 2006 as Washington improved to 10-0-1 after a loss this season.

LackEddie Lack, Carolina Hurricanes
Lack has now lost three of his past four starts after allowing five goals on 32 shots in the Hurricanes' 5-0 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

How are things going to shake out in the Eastern Conference?

Pierre LeBrun@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Who comes out of the parity-filled East? The Philadelphia Flyers won again Sunday, and along with the surprising Carolina Hurricanes, have put themselves into a wide-open playoff race. You've got the Washington Capitals standing alone atop the conference, so we'll just forget about the Caps, but the Florida Panthers lead the Atlantic Division with 57 points and are still very much in sight. Then you've got 11 other teams in the conference separated by just six points. My goodness. This parity is what commissioner Gary Bettman wanted when he implemented the salary cap 11 years ago. Can the Hurricanes and Flyers really make the playoffs? Philadelphia is getting terrific goaltending, and it wouldn't surprise me if it stays in the mix. The Hurricanes are being led by their young blue line, which is shaping up to be some kind of group for years to come. I still think, however, that it may be too much to ask for the Canes this season.

Joe McDonald@ESPNJoeyMac: And who would have thought, Pierre, that after the Montreal Canadiens' incredible start to the season that they would be the second wild-card team with only 50 points on Jan. 18. It's crazy to see the Boston Bruins one point ahead of the Canadiens in the standings, but because of the tight race, any team can leapfrog others at any point right now (with the exception of the Capitals). There's still plenty of hockey to be played, but no doubt it's going to be an exciting stretch run in the East. For the teams currently out of the playoff picture, all it will take is a winning streak (see the Panthers' recent run) to climb back into the race and make it even more interesting. I would love to see a team like the Hurricanes earn a playoff berth.

Scott Burnside@ESPN_Burnside: What about the Penguins in this equation, my friends? Coming off a wild overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, the Pens rebounded Sunday by waxing Carolina 5-0 to avenge an overtime loss to the Canes earlier in the week. Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury continues to be a rock, and after two assists in Sunday's game, Sidney Crosby now has 17 points in his past 13 games, and the Pens are also just a single point back of plummeting Montreal, and they have two games in hand. I also really like GM Jim Rutherford's move to rid the team of unproductive forward David Perron, sending him and Adam Clendening to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Carl Hagelin on the weekend. Perron was an expensive mistake, costing the Penguins a first-round pick and Rob Klinkhammer a year ago. Meanwhile, Hagelin has a chance to restore his own fallen stock after a similarly disappointing turn in Anaheim, where he ended up as the result of an offseason trade with the Rangers. And if we're dreaming up playoff scenarios, is it too early to think about Pittsburgh-Washington as a first-round matchup?

Craig Custance@CraigCustance: Scott knows my feelings about the Hurricanes, a team I liked to be a bit of a surprise in the East. I'm pretty sure we wagered on whether Carolina or Philadelphia would finish higher in the standings, and that one looks like it could go down to the end of the season. There are similarities between the two franchises. Both have general managers who have focused their rebuilds around defense. Philly's Ron Hextall and Carolina's Ron Francis have been around long enough to know how difficult it is to acquire high-end defensemen. You have to draft and develop them yourself, and both organizations are doing a great job of it. The debate between Philly and Carolina this season wouldn't be close if the Hurricanes got goaltending anything close to what the Flyers are getting. Philadelphia is No. 1 in the NHL with a .942 even-strength save percentage, while Carolina is No. 29 at .913. That Carolina is even close to a playoff spot with that number is pretty remarkable. Ultimately, I don't think either is a playoff team, but my bet would be a stronger finish from the Hurricanes if the goaltending on either side of the debate starts to equal out.

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