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Game 1 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Dallas Stars

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Are you ready to see this duo work together in a game that counts?  I know I am! (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Are you ready to see this duo work together in a game that counts? I know I am! (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Welcome to the first preview of the 2010-11 NHL season!

The Time: 7 PM EDT

The Broadcast: MSG+ (HD) for local TV; 660 AM WFAN for radio

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Dallas Stars

The Goal: After a 6 game preseason and a long, strange offseason, the Devils finally begin the 2010-11 season at home.  The main goal for any of these games is to win, of course.   It's not an easy month of games, and Dallas will certainly be looking forward to kicking off the season with a win.  What should help them is aggression.  No, not the physical kind of aggression that would befit Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond.  Offensive aggression.  The Devils have a top line that other teams can only dream of, and they've done well enough in preseason to keep together.  Some of the guys behind them will be playing to keep their spot on NJ, so they'll be extra motivated.  The Devils would be wise to feed off that energy given their talent, plus the energy of the home fans at the Rock, and really take Dallas head on.  An overwhelming start would be a fantastic way to begin this season - and put the rest of the NHL on notice.

But, of course, getting the win is more important.

For further thoughts, a guess at the lineup, and five questions with Brandon Worley of Defending Big D, please continue after the jump.

The Devils are just under the salary cap with a 20 man roster.  This should mean that everyone on the roster is playing.  Center Adam Henrique was just called up to replace Matt Taormina and give the Devils a 12th forward.  While I was certainly surprised by the decision (and had additional questions), it is what it is for now.   According to Tom Gulitti, he didn't practice on Thursday since he arrived from Albany late, but Henrique is still likely to play.  I'm a little concerned that he didn't even get a practice with his potential linemates on the fourth line.  Then again, that line is going to see limited minutes anyway.  Henrique won't be called on to do too much.

Still, Adam Mair - without a contract as of now - still prepared for tonight's game.  Unless he's getting a contract right before game time, I doubt he'll be in.    The rest of the lineup is pretty easy to guess since there are no scratches:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Ilya Kovalchuk
Patrik Elias - Jason Arnott - Jamie Langenbrunner
Brian Rolston - Dainius Zubrus - David Clarkson
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Adam Henrique - Rod Pelley

Henrik Tallinder - Andy Greene
Colin White - Alexander Urbom
Mark Fraser - Anton Volchenkov

Martin Brodeur
Johan Hedberg

These were the lines at Thursday's practice, as reported by Gulitti.  The forward lines have been pretty steady when the veterans were involved.  Zubrus is the only vet I've noticed that  is now in a position he didn't play in preseason, center on the third line.  I think he'll be fine since he's been a center on this team before.  Plus, it's those top two lines who should be carrying the offense anyway given they are almost literally oozing skill.

The defense could be changed by gametime.  Pairings have been mixed up a throughout preseason, as head coach John MacLean wanted to see Urbom and Taormina (among other young defenders) with different veterans. So I'm assuming the group that practiced together on Thursday will start tonight's game. Even though I'm not sure how a Fraser-Volchenkov pairing would work outside of hurting the opposition with checks. Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if Urbom gets paired up with Tallinder at some point. The two looked very good next to each other in preseason at both ends of the rink. Given that the Devils have only one two-way defender in the lineup (Greene), that offense they showed in preseason would be desirable.  Therefore, I think it would be a sensible in-game change if a pairing isn't working out as intended tonight.

Of course, Brodeur's starting tonight.  He's pretty excited as he told the media via Gulitti; and he should be since this is his 16th consecutive season start for New Jersey.  That's a NHL record, one more for the legendary goaltender.  The only real question is whether he'll be starting tomorrow night in DC.  But that can be asked (and answered) after tonight's game.

Moving on to the opposition, I'd like to thank Brandon Worley of Defending Big D for answering a few questions I had about the Stars.  The writers at DBD learned quite a bit from preseason about this season's Stars team, namely reasons to look forward to the play of goaltender Kari Lehtonen as well as forwards Brendan Morrow and Mike Ribeiro. Speaking of Morrow, he will be ready for tonight's game, as reported on Thursday by Mark Stepneski of ESPN Dallas.   He's one of a few talented forwards on Dallas, so the defense will need to be aware when the big man's on the ice - and when he has the puck.

Question 1: When Devils fans think of the Dallas Stars offense, they think of Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, and James Neal first.  Who else among the Stars forwards should Devils fans be concerned with tonight?

Brandon Worley: Jamie Benn. He's centering the third line and he's going to be key to the success of this team. Benn has extreme playmaking ability, he has one of the best wrist shots in the NHL and he's big, physical and can play great defensively as well. He had a big season last year as a pure rookie (he made the jump straight from the CHL) and he should only get better this season. There's no doubt that he's the key to the future of this franchise.

I'd also keep an eye on the second line of Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and Adam Burish. Ribeiro came into camp revitalized, in the best shape of his career and clearly embracing his role as a veteran leader on the Stars. More importantly, he and Morrow have seemingly found their chemistry again and the two of them were electric in the preseason. Add Adam Burish into the mix, a right-handed shot for Ribeiro and a player who thrives on creating havoc in front of the net, and the Stars' second line should be special.

Question 2: Speaking of James Neal, he had a very solid second season of NHL hockey, finishing third on the team in points last season (27 G, 28 A).  What will be expected of Neal entering his third season in the NHL?

BW: More of the same, which is a very good player who is on the verge of becoming great. He needs to become a better player defensively but he's always going to be a sniper with great size who uses his physicality to spark his offense. He fell off a bit last season after his suspension apparently knocked his confidence around, but I'm expecting a 30+ goal season again this year.

The Stars signed Neal to a two-year contract extension this past month so he's not only playing to improve, but he's playing to score what could be a very hefty contract in a few years. He reminds of a drag car at times -- he's great when he's charging ahead at full speed down the ice but once he has to move around at the other end he certainly struggles. If Neal can find a way to become less of a defensive liability, then he'll become a very special player.

Question 3: Changing to defense, Stephane Robidas looks to still be the leader of the blueline.  In fact, it doesn't appear that there are many changes to the Dallas blueline.  Would it be fair to think they'll be better given that they've had a full season together; or is that expecting too much?

BW: The hope is that while the defense is the EXACT same as it was last year, they've improved. There's a theory that the defense should play better in transition with Kari Lehtonen in net, which is incredibly important in Marc Crawford's system. The big thing is that the defense did improve late in the season last year and that should carry over this year as well.

The Stars won't be a shutdown team by any means and will almost certainly allow a high number of shots; the key is to play more physical and cut down on the number of easy goals allowed last season from in close to the net. Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric have both taken the next step defensively and should be even better this season; it's the play of Trevor Daley and Matt Niskanen that should be concerning for the Stars. Niskanen is trying to be more physical, but I think both of them have reached their full potential already.

Question 4. Back in August, Art of Defending Big D had this to say about the team's hopes: "Last year I said I couldn't expect the Stars to do worse and they did.. so this year I - and I think a lot of fans - aren't really expecting a playoff berth and maybe one more year of rebuilding."  Now that preseason is over, would you agree with this expectation? If not, what do you expect instead?

BW: I expect the Stars to make the playoffs, I really do. This team is too good to miss the postseason three years in a row. They may not be anywhere close to the same level of Chicago, Vancouver, San Jose or Los Angeles, but the Stars have a very deep roster at the forward positions and a goaltender that has the potential to be elite. The defense will be frustrating, but this is a team that has underperformed two years in a row; if the Stars play to the level they are capable of they should be somewhere in the sixth to eighth seeding range.

That being said, I really do think the Stars are about a year away from really taking the next step. Let the ownership situation get resolved, have the ability to bring in a big name on defense, and allow a number of great young players from the system (Tomas Vincour, Aaron Gagnon, Severin Blindenbacher, Philip Larsen and Scott Glennie) shore up the roster and the Stars have a very bright future indeed

Question 5: Lastly, what do you think will happen in tonight's game?

BW: I have no idea. It's impossible to really say how this Stars team will play since I haven't actually seen them play a game in the preseason.

I will say that this should be a low-scoring game. Kari Lehtonen was nothing short of special in the preseason and the Stars were still struggling a bit with offense. This will be the first game with the top three lines all playing in the same game, so that should make things very interesting as we see how Crawford plays them.

Big thanks to Brandon Worley of Defending Big D for taking the time to answer my questions about the Stars.

It's time to see what the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils can do.  Hopefully it'll go much better than last season's home opener. A win would certainly take care of that. In any case, I'll be at the game in my usual seat: Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5.  Feel free to stop by and say hello.  While I'll be at the game, I'll try to comment from time to time in the eventual GameThread later today.  

In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts, feelings, concerns, confidence, and any news updates (with links) in the comments for tonight's game.  Go Devils!