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Game 69 Preview: Devils vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The New Jersey Devils have a game tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Rock.  It could said the game is on St. Patrick's Day.  But truly, the attention will be focused on Martin Brodeur.  Should the Devils win tomorrow, Brodeur will become the all-time leader in regular season victories.  This is a historic moment. Tickets will be scarce if not outright sold. The crowd will be electric.  The love the Devils faithful has for Martin Brodeur will be poured out all game long.

And that's not even the only record that could be set! Patrik Elias only needs a point to become the team's all-time leading scorer.

Poor Chicago!  They have to walk into the Rock for tonight!  And they haven't been doing so well as of late.   They are 1-4-0 in their last 5 and now Vancouver has a shot at catching them in the Western Conference. SamFels at Second City hockey is reminded of the Big Lebowski in urging calm.  He points out that all of the other top teams in the league aren't flying these days and suggests that the complacency isn't uncommon.

I got an issue with his thesis: he left out the second-place team in the Eastern Conference!  The New Jersey Devils are 4-1-0 and have been anything but complacent as of late, with wins in their last 3 games, and a 9 game winning streak at home. Sutter's not changing his line up according to Chere, and why would he when the team is doing so well!  I mean, even Mike Rupp had a good game against Montreal, and he's the 12th forward!

A long winning streak at home, a team that's playing well, a night where their star goaltender could make history, and you're struggling as of late?  I don't want to count chickens before they hatch, but I'm feeling pretty good about the Devils' chances tonight.  This is assuming (and it's an important assumption), the Devils don't get caught up in the history and the emotions and what-have-you and bring their "A" game against Chicago.

See, despite their recent struggles, the Blackhawks are a solid team.  Dustin Byfuglien aside, it's a young and hungry team with an appetite for goals.  The Blackhawks have scored an average of 3.24 goals per game and they have a healthy power play succeeding at a rate of 21.6%.  The biggest scorers are Patrick Kane, Jonathan Towes, Martin Havlat, rookie Kris Versteeg, and Patrick Sharp.  Each has over 20 goals so far this season, and each can cause problems for defenses.  The Devils' defense cannot "relax" when any of them are near the ice. Also, they'll have to be a little concerned about Brian Campbell setting plays up from the point as well.   Needless to say, taking stupid penalties and hanging back against Chicago is likely the same as asking "Marty, please douse them with water tonight, because we're getting burned!"  The Devils defense will have to be on point.

While the offense in Chicago is impressive, just as worthy of credit has been their defense.  Brent Seabrook is Mirtle's top man for his Rod Langway rankings for a reason, he is having a fantastic season. And Duncan Keith is almost right there! Two Blackhawks sandwiching Paul Martin.  Helping him out are Cam Barker and  Campbell.  This is a blueline that has allowed only 29.2 shots per game on average (the Devils have allowed 28.9/game), and in conjunction with Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin (who will start against New Jersey according to Chris Kuc), only 2.58 goals against per game on average.  Chicago is not shabby at all in their own end; not by a long shot!

My whole point is that the Blackhawks are a strong team in both ends.  In terms of weaknesses, their penalty killing has been porous as of late and overall just average at 80.6% effectiveness.  Another area has been faceoffs, where Chicago has only won 47.6% of their faceoffs - the 26th lowest percentage in the league.  Needless to say, the Devils' power play and the centers (Travis Zajac, calling Travis Zajac to the faceoff dot) should continue to pick apart Chicago.  Those are the two most obvious ones to me, at least.

Overall, the Devils need to go into this game like they are playing Philadelphia, Montreal, et. al.  The Hawks are one of the best non-division leading teams in the league.  Yes, most of the signs going into this game favor the Devils.  All the intangibles, as it were, are on the side of New Jersey.  Still, taking Chicago lightly is not an option.  I believe Sutter understands this and I'm confident the team does as well.  Hopefully their play will show this understanding.

And hopefully, we can celebrate history at The Rock tomorrow night.  Second City Hockey will have something up on this game, so go check them out.