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Game 60 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars

The Time: 8:30 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - Versus(HD) ; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-30-4) at the Dallas Stars (31-22-6)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Carolina on Saturday and put up three goals in an excellent first period performance. The Canes proved better in the second period but didn't score; and while they got on the board in the third period, Dainius Zubrus scored his second goal minutes later to re-establish the three goal lead.  The Devils won 4-1, Patrik Elias earned his 800th point, and I had a lot of praise for the Elias line in my recap.

The Last Stars Game: The Stars finished up a three game road trip in Vancouver on Saturday night. Dallas was looking to snap a three game losing streak. Unfortunately for them, the Canucks had other ideas.  Like putting up 38 shots on Andrew Raycroft, and scoring three goals in the third to win the game 5-2.  Like most Stars fans, Art Middleton did not like what he saw and explained his displeasure in this recap at Defending Big D.

The Last Devils-Stars Game: It was the first game of the season for both teams.  The Devils hosted the Stars at the Rock and for the first 10 minutes or so, it looked to be a successful home opener. Two early goals by the line of Zach Parise (remember him?), Travis Zajac, and Ilya Kovalchuk, control of the puck by the Devils, and a hot crowd. Then the Stars took a timeout, Kovalchuk hit a post (those with good memories and/or confirmation bias haven't forgotten this), the Devils started making errors in their own end, and Dallas crawled back into the game.  Ultimately, it ended 3-3 in regulation and another defensive zone error (presumably a sign of things to come) led to Loui Eriksson's game winning goal in OT.  The Devils lost 4-3 OT. Here's my recap of the game, and Brandon Worley's recap at Defending Big D for the opposition's perspective.

The Goal: Don't take the Stars lightly.  The biggest concern I have for this game is that this is a sort of a trap game.  The Devils have been very hot, winning their last 7 games. The Stars have been the sliding, losing their last 4 games along with more of their players to injury.  With Dallas needing some kind of a lift, playing at home after a very poor road trip.  If the Devils want to stay hot, then they can't get too relaxed at against a depleted Stars squad that needs points to stay in playoff contention. Essentially, if the Devils can make them miserable, then they need to  make it rain misery.   If it starts off poorly, then don't panic - just stick to what has been working in the last 7 games.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For opinion and analysis about Dallas, please check out Defending Big D.

Dallas is not in a good place right now.  It's bad enough that they lost four in a row.  What's worse is that they are in the Western Conference.  As of right now, the Stars have 68 points, tied with five other teams - including two of their divisional rivalsThey are only in eighth place right now due to tiebreakers.  Mark Stepneski of ESPN Dallas looked at the playoff race on Sunday, a good guide as to standings situation they are in. Basically, if they can't stop the streak soon enough, they could be on the outside looking in for the playoffs.

What's more is that Dallas is an overrated team.  Gabe Desjardens called them out as being the luckiest team in the NHL back in late December at the Behind the Net Blog.  More recently, Derek Zona at the Copper & Blue took a look at the Pacific Division and found the Stars to be at the bottom of various stats - including Fenwick% for even strength situations when the score was close. That's not good at all; they're about as bad as the Islanders in that category.  Zona took it a step further and used this to argue why the Stars should trade productive winger center Brad Richards at the 2011 NHL Trade Deadline. 

2010-11 - Brad Richards 56 24 39 63 4 24 7 0 3 215 11.2

As if it wasn't bad enough, the Stars can't even do that right now. As reported on Monday by Mike Heika of the Dallas News, Richards himself says he is day-to-day with a concussion.  He didn't practice on Monday and he won't be playing tonight.  Given that he's eighth in the league in points, that's a big blow.  The injuries don't end with Richards, though.  As reported by Stepneski on Monday at ESPN Dallas, Niklas Grossman remains out with a hip injury.  While Jamie Benn, Adam Burish, and Krys Barch practiced on Monday, none have been cleared to play.  So mark them as questionable.

It seems their luck has run out and the reality has hit the Stars really hard in the face.  The struggles have gotten Brandon Worely to question the leadership on the team He demanded that certain players (e.g. Brandon Morrow) to step up their games; though, it curiously did not mention Jamie Langenbrunner.

That's right, this is the first game where Langenbrunner will be on the opposition team. You may remember him as the guy who was looking for "it" in the locker room.  I don't know what happened to "it."  "It" just happened to stop being an issue when he was traded to Dallas for a conditional draft pick.  With 2 goals and 6 assists in 17 games with the Stars, he's not exactly lighting things up in his new (old?) digs.  Still, he was practicing on the first line with Mike Ribiero and Brendan Morrow according to Stepneski's practice report on Monday at ESPN Dallas.   He can't be fully discounted as a player, especially with two better players at left wing and center on his line. We know that Langenbrunner can thrive in that situation.

However, he bears no ill will according to this Mark Everson article at the New York Post. Though, this is an interesting quote:

"I pride myself on not being a distraction or source of conflict. If I get painted as a villain because of a situation where all the facts aren't out there, well, I'll fall on that sword," Langenbrunner told The Post.

"Because people put something out doesn't make it fact. I got painted as the bad guy. But, oh well," said Langenbrunner, who will face the Devils when they visit Dallas on Tuesday.

Oh, Jamie. You're so full of "it."

Anyway, the Stars made a trade with the Penguins on Monday. They moved winger James Neal (21 G, 18 A) and defenseman Matt Niskanen (6 A) for defenseman Alex Goligoski (9 G, 22 A).  I find this move curious given that the Stars have scored only 6 goals in their last 4 games.  The article at plainly explains that Niskanen was looking for a "fresh start" along with both team's GM's happy with what they got. 

For tonight's game, I don't mind that it makes Dallas weaker up front. It means the dangerous forwards are now only Loui Eriksson, Ribiero, Morrow, and Benn (if he plays). Though, I'm not really happy with Joe Nieuwendyk making a division rival potentially better by giving them a strong 23 year old scoring winger.  One the Devils will see 3 more times this season. One who could be lining up next to Sidney Crosby. Brandon Worley thought the trade makes sense in this post at Defending Big D, as he's tired with Neal's potential outweighing what he was bringing to the ice.  He has further analysis in this second post here. It should free up space to re-sign Richards, if that is indeed the plan in Dallas.  Going back to tonight's game, Goligoski is expected to suit up for Dallas for tonight's game according to Heika's post about the trade at the Dallas News.

Lastly about the Stars, Heika reported on Monday that Mark Crawford named Kari Lehtonen the starting goaltender.

2010-11 - Kari Lehtonen 46 2741 23 17 123 2.69 1416 1293 .913 0

Incidentally, in his last seven appearances, he has allowed 22 goals out of 225 shots (32.14 per game).  That's not very good.  But again, neither have been the Stars as of late.  They are not in a good place right now.

Starting opposite of Lehtonen will be Johan Hedberg. Yes, the Moose, not Marty.  Rich Chere confirmed the news in this post on Monday afternoon.  I have no problems with this. Hedberg has allowed a whopping 8 goals in his last seven appearances out of 169 shots (24.14 per game - make it 25.667 across his last 6 starts).  He's blazing right now.  He's probably not going to be this hot later in the season, so ride it out until he needs a rest or it ends.

In other Devils news, they practiced on Sunday and Monday. This is notable since the original plan was for Sunday to be optional, and then a supposed day off on Monday was scrapped for another practice.  I also have no problems with this.  While the team has been winning games, they've been doing so largely because Jacques Lemaire has been working them hard. I want the Devils to stay competitive and so the practices will keep making that post.  It's not like they've won these games with impeccable performances. 

Also: If you are on board with believing in a miracle run for the postseason, you should definitely have no problem with it.  The margin of error is so small that just a few games with a lack of focus can utterly derail the effort.  Practice keeps that focus on the game instead and would help against the Devils believing their own hype.

In terms of Devils to look for, well, it's becoming a common refrain now.  Ilya Kovalchuk should and probably will command your attention and respect.  He's got a 10-game point streak going, picking up an assist in an otherwise relatively quiet night for him against Carolina.   Though any Stars fans taking solace in that should note that he was a beast against the Rangers from the night prior.     Kovalchuk-Zajac-Nick Palmieri could be the strong line tonight, as they have been in the last few weeks.  Kovalchuk's beast potential alone will likely command Dallas' top defensemen.  And if they aren't doing great, then it could be Patrik Elias alongside Brian Rolston and Zubrus grabbing your eyes. That line was killing it against Carolina and has been several times since mid-January. 

How Crawford will match up against both lines will be crucial in determining whether we will see a fifth straight loss for Dallas or the first loss for New Jersey since February 4 (an overtime loss to Florida).  It'll be more than just seeing how he uses Goligoski on D, but also Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley, the two top minute men on the Stars.

Do you think the Devils will keep up the hotness in Dallas?  Are you worried that this could be a trap game for the Devils?  What aspect of the game do you think will be the most important one in determining tonight's winner? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.