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Game 77 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Chicago Blackhawks

This man will be re-joined by Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus on the second line tonight. Yep, Lemaire may be going to back to lines that worked earlier this month.  Intriguing.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
This man will be re-joined by Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus on the second line tonight. Yep, Lemaire may be going to back to lines that worked earlier this month. Intriguing. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7 PM EDT/6 PM CDT

The Broadcast: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (44-26-6) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (47-22-7)

The Promotion: Mystery Pucks are back. $20 gets you an autographed puck. From who? Who knows. Show up early (The Rock opens at 5:30) and you may get one. One per person. Proceeds go to benefit the local Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Full details at the Devils' official web site.

The Last Devils Game: Martin Brodeur showed up and pretty much willed the Devils to get a point against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. The rest of the team was dreadful on the ice. The Boston Bruins won with less than 20 seconds left when Patrice Bergeron got to a loose puck that Brodeur could not physically get to in time. But really, given how the Devils played, they were very fortunate to just get a point. I recapped the frustrating game here.

The Last Blackhawks Game: The Blackhawks have been struggling, but they got everything in right in Minnesota on Wednesday. A dominating performance combined with a poor showing by the Wild led to a 4-0 win for Chicago. The Blackhawks are 3-5-2 in their last 10, but their last win was their third shutout win in the last 10 games. It's short, it doesn't hold back, but Matthew Dirt at Second City Hockey seemed pleased with the performance but isn't getting his hopes up just yet until Chicago wins a few in a row.

The Last Devils-Blackhawks Game: It was New Year's Eve and the night before, the Devils shut out the Penguins. But a review of this game was simple. Chicago dominated on home ice. Simply dominated as the Blackhawks won 5-1. The Devils were just constantly a step behind all night long as the Blackhawks owned the puck and the run of the game. The only positive for New Jersey was that they scored a goal to prevent a shutout loss - something they didn't suffer at all in the 2009 part of this season. I recapped the New Year's Eve game here; Matthew Dirt was more to the point in his recap at Second City Hockey.

The Goal: Start off the game well - get shots on net, win pucks, and actually try setting the tempo. I may be repeating myself; but the Devils have struggled at the beginning of their last 3 games. Only in one of them did the Devils settle the game down and worked to win, the 4-2 win over Montreal. The Devils seem excited for tonight's game. Here's what Jacques Lemaire and Zach Parise had to say on Thursday, as reported by Tom Gulitti:

The Blackhawks defeated the Devils pretty handily in New Year’s Eve, but Lemaire said that revenge won’t be something on his team’s mind tonight.

"Us to go back to a good game, that’s what I’m looking for," Lemaire said. "I want the guys to be consistent. I want them to be hard to play against, not give (up) easy goals."

"They beat us pretty good, so there’s a little bit of that where we want to have a better effort against them, but I think right now we’re more concerned about ourselves and how we’re playing," Parise said. "We know how good of a team that is. That’s one of the best teams in the West and it will be good for us to have a good game against them and feel good about ourselves and the way we played."

The best way to do this is to set the tempo early and take initiative. Digging yourself in a hole or waiting for the game to "settle" before making a move against Chicago would only make tonight a significantly more difficult game to win. Forget their recent struggles, they'll gladly bulldoze over an opponent who isn't ready from the beginning of the game.

For the no-holds-barred Chicago perspective, check out Second City Hockey. Please read on for additional thoughts on tonight's game.

Chicago may have been struggling recently, but that doesn't mean they are short on talent. Up front, the names just roll off the tounge: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Troy Brouwer, and Kris Versteeg. Their defense is lead by the impressive Duncan Keith joined by the very talented Brent Seabrook and . Yes, Brian Campbell is out injured; but this is still a stacked team.

2009 - Patrick Kane 76 28 54 82 14 20 9 0 6 0 240 11.7
2009 - Duncan Keith 76 13 53 66 14 47 3 1 1 0 200 6.5
2009 - Jonathan Toews 70 23 39 62 21 43 8 0 2 0 192 12.0
2009 - Marian Hossa 51 23 23 46 22 18 2 5 2 0 185 12.4
2009 - Troy Brouwer 76 21 18 39 8 66 7 1 6 0 115 18.3
2009 - Patrick Sharp 76 24 39 63 22 26 4 2 3 0 249 9.6

Plus, Antti Niemi has shown that he has "the goods." At least, more so than Cristobal Huet. I would think he'd start tonight.

2009 - Antti Niemi 33 1824 21 7 68 2.24 765 697 .911 7

As far as how they'd like to play, I'd refer back to the preview from the Blackhawks-Devils game from earlier this season. I asked SamFels of Second City Hockey and he spelled it out to a "T"

Question #1. First, an open-ended question. Many Devils fans don't see the Chicago Blackhawks on a regular basis. Could you describe the style of hockey they play and why it has been so effective?

SF: Well, the style is eerily similar to what the Red Wings have done in seasons past, but at a faster speed, if you can believe that. Heavily puck-control, you'll rarely see the Hawks dump it in. At least two forecheckers at every chance. In the backend, they collapse the middle and keep everything to the outside, and block a lot of shots. Their shot differential of +9.4, twice of anyone in the league, show you that. Why's it effective? Well, with the amount of speed the Hawks have, they can harass opposing defenders into turnovers, which their abundance of skill turns into chances and goals. The speed also allows forwards to help out our d-men quicker and force possession by the opponent in our end to end quickly, and transition to the other end at lightning speed.

I'd expect Chicago to play to their strengths in speed and possession given how well it worked earlier this season.

Lastly, the team is getting into "playoff mode" like the Devils. The 4-0 win over the Wild was a good start. This post by Tim Sassone of the Daily Herald highlights what head coach Joel Quenneville changed prior to their recent win. I would think Quenneville will keep his lines and pairings the same to start tonight's game given how well they worked on Wednesday. And former New Jersey Devil, John Madden, emphasized that they still aren't where they want to be when he spoke to the media on Thursday - reported here by Tom Gulitti:

Like the Devils, the Blackhawks have lost their focus of late.

"I think maybe we were just getting ahead of ourselves and looking too far into the playoff picture, kind of hoping that comes quicker," said Madden, who has 10 goals and 13 assists in 73 games this season. "But it seems now we realize that we have to take care of business and start heating up before we get into the playoffs. I’m sure a lot of teams are going through different things. We kind of just got complacent and we’ve got to guard against that and focus on the upcoming games."

Why am I bringing all this up? To truly and fully illuminate the point that Chicago is an elite team despite their problems; that their recent 4-0 win over the Wild gives us a few possible tells as to how they'll come in tonight; and most of all, this will not be easy in the slightest for New Jersey.

What will the Devils do tonight? Well, Lemaire rolled out some new forward lines in practice. Rather, some old forward lines returned. These are the lines that Tom Gulitti saw at Thursday's practice, I would guess that they'll be the starting lines tonight:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Ilya Kovalchuk - Patrik Elias - Dainius Zubrus
Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - David Clarkson
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Dean McAmmond - Rod Pelley

Paul Martin - Martin Skoula
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

I, for one, welcome the return to these lines. The ZZ Pops line is a known quantity, perhaps it will re-ignite Zach Parise, who has been very quiet in the last two games. The second line features an all-world shooter (Kovalchuk), an excellent play maker (Elias), and a big forward who excels down low and along the boards (Zubrus). I think that the second line's diversity in talent will work very well with each other, as they all can complement their talents on offense. Brian Rolston can give the third line some offensive punch; and the fourth line can spell guys with some hits, energy, and perhaps a little "beef."

According to Gulitti, Lemaire figured after the Boston game that he needed to return to what worked. Good. This was a sensible change at practice. I really hope these four lines look good tonight, if only so Lemaire has reason to keep them together in this final stretch of the season. I also hope is Dainius Zubrus is healthy - he left practice early due to a virus per Gulitti's report.

Tonight's game and the following five games remaining are all important for the purposes of playoff seeding and getting into a groove before the postseason. Tom Gulitti had an excellent column where the Devils players and Lemaire all talk about the importance of finding consistency. Please read it. From there, I understand the logic behind Martin Brodeur playing most of these games, as reported here by Gulitti. If that's what it takes to win a more favorable seed and get the Devils rolling before the postseason, then I'm more than fine with that. But now is the time to go out there and put some action behind all of these words. Stop talking about how it's time to find focus, be focused. It won't be easy, but who said it ever would be?

I'll be in my usual seat - Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5 - hoping to see a strong performance by the Devils. I'm emphasizing performance because that's not only going to lead to the final score, but also clue us in to how the team may play when the playoffs start. I don't know about you, but that's my perspective for these final six games. Steve will have a GameThread up later. In the meantime, please leave your questions, concerns, complaints, compliments, news updates (with links), and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Go Devils!