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Game 31 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Dallas Stars

The Time of the Game: 8:00 PM EDT

The Time of Niedermayer's Ceremony: 6:45 PM - 7:30 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (16-13-1) vs. the Dallas Stars (18-11-1)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went to Sunrise to finish off a back-to-back set against the Florida Panthers. In a similar yet backward way of how the last Devils-Panthers game went, the Panthers went up two in the game and the Devils battled back to tie it up. Two horrid defensive miscues led to Florida's two goals, while the Devils lit the lamp twice while extending offensive pressure on the Panthers. The Devils came agonizingly close to winning it in regulation, but it wasn't to be. The Devils held off Florida in OT and they succeeded yet again in a shootout to get two points. The Devils won 3-2 via a shootout and my recap of that game is here.

The Last Stars Game: On Thursday, the Stars took on the New York Islanders on the road. Dallas struck first when Loui Eriksson scored before halfway through the first. The Islanders would put up a decent fight on the scoreboard, tying the game late in the first and going up 2-1 near the end of the second period. Yet, the Stars were the better team and it showed in the third period. Brendan Morrow scored just after a minute into the third period to tie up the game on a power play. Jamie Benn scored the go-ahead and eventual game winning goal a few minutes later. Dallas held on to win 3-2; their third straight road win. Brandon Worley has this short recap of the game over at Defending Big D.

The Last Devils-Stars Game: In the final game of a five game road trip, the Devils went into Dallas to take on the Stars. The first period was a bit rocky, what with Loui Eriksson of all people found alone in front of the net to open the game's scoring. The Devils responded in the second period with a great effort. They tied up the game when Petr Sykora fired a shot off a faceoff win past Kari Lehtonen. The Devils pushed for the go-ahead goal; Johan Hedberg made some important stops; and the defense was fairly solid. Yet, a wrap-around attempt by Vernon Fiddler resulted in the puck bouncing off Mark Fayne's skate and through Hedberg's legs into the net. That was the game winning goal and the Stars got a last-second empty net goal to make it a 3-1 loss for New Jersey. Frustrating was my key word for the Devils' performance, as I emphasized in my recap. For the opposition's take on that game, Art Middleton has this recap over at Defending Big D.

The Goal: Ride the emotions and roll over the Stars. The Dallas Stars are not a good possession team, they regularly get out-shot at 5-on-5 play (and allow a lot in 5-on-5 play), and they played a full game last night. In theory, this is a good set up for the Devils to get on the ice and really push the tempo against Dallas. The Devils haven't exactly taken full advantage of these situations in the past (e.g. the last game against Ottawa); but I'm hopeful they'll take it one day. What better day than tonight? The intangibles should be fully in New Jersey's favor. The team will honor Scott Niedermayer's time as a Devil by retiring his number 27. Moreover, they'll be getting some players back from injury, including Travis Zajac. The last thing the Devils should want to do on a night celebrating Niedermayer and welcoming back Zajac is come out flat or let Dallas control the game. Therefore, it is highly recommended that the Devils embrace what should be a charged atmosphere to secure a result over Dallas.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view, please check out Defending Big D.

I have an incredibly long piece on Niedermayer that will appear later today. The short version: he's a legendary two-way defenseman. But you already knew that. Again, the ceremony will begin well before the puck drops. If you're going to the game, then get there early. If you're watching it, tune in at 6:30 when MSG+ begins their pregame coverage so you don't miss the beginning. Likewise if you're listening on the radio. You do not want miss this important & historical event for Niedermayer and the Devils.

Moving on to the matter of tonight's game, the Devils will also get a boost from three players returning as Peter DeBoer confirmed on Thursday, reported here by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Two of those are defensemen: Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder. Volchenkov suffered a hand injury last week and was inactive for a few games. He's feeling better so he'll be back in the lineup. Tallinder got slashed in the hand during the Florida game and did not return to the ice afterward. Thankfully there was no fracture as Tom Gulitti reported on Wednesday, so the injury was minor at best. Given that he got through practice on Thursday, so he should be good to go tonight. This is excellent news as Tallinder has been a top defender for the Devils this season and Volchenkov has been steady both on the PK. Both are superior options than Alexander Urbom and/or Matt Taormina; so the blueline will get a lift tonight. Hopefully that will also lead to fewer face-palm-worthy mistakes that end up in the back of the net too.

Of course, the big news is that Travis Zajac will return to the lineup tonight. He suffered a significant injury in the offseason, tearing his left Achilles tendon in an offseason workout. Zajac has made a full recovery and has been skating with the team. After practicing on the third line and on the power play on Thursday, he will make his season debut tonight. Since Zajac missed out on training camp, preseason, and the better parts of 3 months of hockey, I wouldn't expect him to be like his usual self right away. Peter DeBoer is wise to use him in a smaller role and put him in protected situations like the power play. Until Zajac shakes off the proverbial rink rust, he should be brought along slowly. Therefore, don't expect a whole lot from him right away.

Still, it's great news that all three will be active. For the first time all season, the Devils will have a full-strength roster on paper. Given that they're coming off two back-to-back wins, the rest of the team should feel confident as a whole. Gulitti also reported that Johan Hedberg will get the start tonight, with Martin Brodeur starting tomorrow. DeBoer continues to split the starts for both goalies in back-to-back situations. Both Hedberg and Brodeur played well in the back-to-back, so I'm fine with this set-up. It's nothing like Dallas' goaltender situation.

Kari Lehtonen has had a great season so far, but he currently has a groin injury. Dallas has called up Richard Bachman and he's been simply fantastic in the few games he has started. He also played last night. This means there is a very real possibility that the Devils could be facing Andrew Raycroft tonight.

2011-12 - Kari Lehtonen 19 1103 13 4 1 43 2.34 581 538 .926 .937 0
2011-12 - Richard Bachman 4 200 3 0 0 3 0.90 99 96 .970 .975 1
2011-12 - Andrew Raycroft 9 510 2 7 0 30 3.53 291 261 .897 .896 0

This is a good thing. Let's hope Bachman doesn't get back-to-back starts.

As for the Stars as a team, I turn to Behind the Net - prior to their game against the Islanders. As noted in The Goal, the Stars are usually on the wrong end of possession, they have a SA/60 close to 32 in 5-on-5 play, and they're usually out-shot in the same situation. On top of that, they are like New Jersey when it comes to generating shots in 5-on-4 play: awful (40.8 SF/60); and they're not really limiting a lot of shots in 4-on-5 situations with a SA/60 of 52.5. All of this combined does not make for a good hockey team. Yet, the Stars are certainly competitive; the best in a Pacific Division full of teams gone awry so far in 2011-12.

2011-12 - Jamie Benn 30
8 18 26 6 37 2 1 3 94 8.5
2011-12 - Loui Eriksson 30 11 13 24 7 2 2 1 1 76 14.5
2011-12 - Mike Ribeiro 30 3 18 21 2 18 0 0 1 61 4.9
2011-12 - Michael Ryder 30 9 9 18 6 14 1 0 2 62 14.5
2011-12 - Brenden Morrow 30 5 8 13 1 45 3 0 1 34 14.7

They do have quite a few players the Devils need to be wary of on the ice. Jamie Benn leads the team in scoring and shots on net among forwards. Loui Eriksson's shot is great and leads the team in goal scoring with 11 (with Eric Nystrom of all people just behind him with 10). Those two are the most dangerous forwards on Dallas and for good reason.

Interestingly, according to Behind the Net's 5-on-5 stats for the Stars players, Benn and Eriksson usually don't face the toughest competition on the team. Mike Ribiero, Michael Ryder, and Brenden Morrow do. That's not a slam on Benn or Eriksson; after all, they're moving the puck forward given their competition. Not so much for Ribiero and Ryder; and definitely not Morrow (I don't care if his Ozone% 44.9, an on-ice Corsi rate of -15.25 is terrible). Still, those players make up the bulk of Dallas' forwards, all but Morrow has been notably productive, and so should be respected accordingly. Knowing Tallinder will be back along with not relying as much on Bryce Salvador should help out against this group. One more quick note: Steve Ott, a pest who's been quite a positive possession player. He's got 5 goals and 7 assists too; so he's not just out there to rack up PIMs and get people angry.

2011-12 - Sheldon Souray 30
4 9 13 6 41 2 1 1 21:14 95 4.2
2011-12 - Stephane Robidas 30 2 8 10 -3 16 1 0 0 22:44 30 6.7

The Dallas blueline is led by Sheldon Souray and Stephane Robidas. Souray was essentially exiled to the AHL last season and has been experiencing a bit of a comeback as a Dallas Star. He just surpassed Benn in shots on net; he's averaging 21:14 per game; he leads the Dallas defense in scoring; and he's actually a positive possession player along with facing tough competition. In short, he's doing quite well. He's usually joined with Robidas, who leads the Stars in ice time per game with 22:48. The Devils should expect to see plenty of them, right? Well, not so fast. Trevor Daley (21:41 ATOI), Alex Goligoski (21:14), and Nicklas Grossman (19:04) are used quite frequently. Even their sixth guy, be it Mark Fistric, Adam Pardy, or Philip Larsen, has averaged over 16 minutes. Dallas may rely on the Souray-Robidas pairing against the other team's best players, but they like to split up the in ice time. Given the varying (and low) on-ice Corsi values of the rest of the blueline, it's probably for the best.

It's a big night for the Devils. How do you see tonight play out for the Devils? What do you expect out of Zajac in his first game tonight? Will the defense actually be stronger with Tallinder and Volchenkov back? How giddy should we be if Andrew Raycroft is in net? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.