The biggest difference, for me, between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins – the best two teams in the Eastern Conference – entering the 2010-11 season, is that the Pens identified their weaknesses and rectified them in the offseason, while the Caps did not.

And to me, that’s going to make a huge different both during this winter and in the postseason.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row and raising the Cup in ’09, the Pens fell in the second round last spring. They realized how much they missed free agent departures Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi on their back end, so they set out to rectify that by inking Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

Pittsburgh realizes that with so much money tied up in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, et al., it’s never going to be able put a lot of resources into its winger contingent. So general manager Ray Shero goes out and finds a bargain in the potentially revitalized Mike Comrie and the always hard-charging Arron Asham. That’s a championship attitude from a GM and an organization.

Washington, on the other hand, obviously needed more ruggedness on the back end and some tighter goaltending. The Caps’ idea of improving after last year’s first-round embarrassment was to let Jose Theodore, Joe Corvo and Shaone Morrisonn walk. While the offense is still explosive with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin leading the way, the back end led by “offenseman” Mike Green, inconsistent Jeff Schultz and Tom Poti isn’t going to get the Caps deep in the postseason without a major leap in development taken by John Carlson, Karl Alzner or a mystery blueliner.

With the addition of Nathan Horton and the best goaltending duo – Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas – in the league on their side, the Bruins should win the Northeast Division and give someone a hard time at least until the second round. However, until it’s proven that there are three legitimate scoring lines and a bonafide No. 2 defenseman to complement Zdeno Chara in black and gold, the Bruins are behind Washington and Pittsburgh in the East pecking order.

And the Pens are the class of the conference based on their overall depth and preponderance of talent. Here are my Eastern Conference picks:

1. Pittsburgh

Crosby is really ready to end any arguments about who the best player in the league is, and Marc-Andre Fleury is ready earn his share of accolades as a goaltender.

2. Washington

Ovechkin might run away with the Richard and Green will score enough to earn more Norris votes, but does anyone really believe this team can win in the playoffs? By December the Caps will be searching for a veteran goaltender to replace either Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth.

3. Bruins

Marc Savard’s absence to start the season leaves the Bruins wanting up front. At some point, they might have to trade a prospect or two to fortify the back end or add a dose of scoring.

4. Philadelphia

It’s the same old story in net for the Flyers, who might also miss Simon Gagne’s scoring as they try to support the revolving door of goaltenders. There’s still plenty of talent among the top six up front, led by Mike Richards, and in the rear, led by Chris Pronger.

5. Buffalo

The small, speedy Sabres are perfectly suited for the regular season and Ryan Miller is the perfect netminder to play behind this up-tempo team. They got younger and more athletic on the back end, but will still struggle to get out of the first round.

6. New Jersey

For once, the Devils imported a star free agent defenseman, as Anton Volchenkov gives them one of the league’s best shot-blockers. That should make life a little easier for Martin Brodeur. I expect Ilya Kovalchuk to thrive in an environment where there are high expectations and a premium is put on winning.

7. Montreal

Carey Price will find his confidence and not be the problem for this Habs team, which will struggle to put a solid corps of blueliners in front of him. Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik’s health is a concern.

8. Carolina

Paul Maurice works well with young players, and guys like Jamie McBain are going to supplement the veteran cast, led by Eric Staal, enough to get this team back into the postseason after a one-year hiatus.

Non-playoff teams

9. Ottawa

I’d expect Jason Spezza to make the Senators pleased they didn’t trade him. However, the goaltending void is too immense to get this club in the playoffs.

10. Atlanta

Craig Ramsay’s coaching will make this team one of the best at keeping the puck out of the net, even if the Thrashers can’t score enough to make it mean something.

11. Tampa Bay

The opposite of Atlanta, the Lightning are going to score a ton and have a tough time keeping goaltenders Dan Ellis and Mike Smith from becoming victims of a shot avalanche. Steve Yzerman might have this franchise on the right track, but I don’t expect his moves to pay off so soon.

12. New York Rangers

It’ll be another offensively challenged year on Broadway, where the Rangers should be scouring the streets for a No. 1 center. Henrik Lundqvist won’t be able to do enough to make the Blueshirts a postseason threat.

13. Toronto

Tyler Bozak is the No. 1 center. That’s all you need to know. While Phil Kessel could score 50, and the Leafs might boast one of the top five top sixes on the back end, there are still plenty of flaws to keep this team in the lottery.

14. Florida

The Panthers will stay out of the basement by virtue of a second-half surge that’ll be sparked by the youthful likes of Jacob Markstrom in goal and other prospects once GM Dale Tallon clears out some more veterans.

15. New York Islanders

As if they didn’t show up to camp bad enough, they lose Mark Streit, Kyle Okposo and Rob Schremp to injury before the season starts. The Isles will be battling Dallas for the No. 1 pick come April.

Western Conference picks