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Devils ready to start the show

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Kovalchuk hopes to have plenty to smile about in 2010-11.
After an unforgettable offseason in which the Devils were undaunted in their quest for sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, the regular season finally begins tonight.


The Devils host the Dallas Stars at Prudential Center to open the 2010-11 campaign. Game time is set for 7 p.m. 

“I’m very excited,” Kovalchuk told newjerseydevils.com. “I think we’ve been waiting for this all summer because last year we didn’t get the result that we wanted. We were waiting for the new year. This year is a big year for us because I think we’ve got a great chance and we’ve got a great group of guys.”

Kovalchuk was the summer's most coveted free agent. He and the Devils had to work through a contract rejection before finally reaching a deal that was approved by the NHL in September. Besides re-acquiring Kovalchuk, New Jersey also bolstered its defense, signing Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, and backup netminder Johan Hedberg.

Kovalchuk’s long-term future in red and black was worth the wait.

“Sometimes it takes a little longer than you think to sign a contract, but I’m glad to know it’s all over and tonight’s the night,” he said.

His line with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac has been one of the most talked about trios in the NHL. In six preseason games, Parise, Kovalchuk, Zajac ranked first, second and third on the Devils' scoring list.

But that was exhibition.

“We still have a lot to prove,” Parise said. “Like we’ve talked about, we look good on paper, but we have a lot to prove, a lot to accomplish. We’re excited to see how good we really are when we’re all playing together.”

Over the last two seasons, Kovalchuk and Parise rank second and fourth in the NHL for goals scored.

“I think if all goes well, we’re going to have a productive line,” Parise said. “We’ve been getting better with a lot of good scoring chances every game. I think we’re just excited to see what we can do in the regular season. We know about those high expectations for us as a line, but I think it’s going to be fun for us to play together and hopefully put up some points and help this team win.”

The opener versus Dallas might not seem as intriguing as a showdown with a division rival, but there’s more to this matchup than meets the eye.

Head coach John MacLean
“I’m starting my coaching career against the team I finished playing with,” said head coach John MacLean, who makes his regular season debut tonight. The Devils’ all-time goals leader (347) is the first former player to take over behind the bench.

“I’m excited, nervous, ready to go,” he said. “Looking forward to it. It’s a great opportunity and I’m excited about the team that I have.”

MacLean's group ranks as one of the most skilled Devils squads in recent memory.

“It’s just going to be exciting to watch,” he said. “I think they’ve gelled pretty well together here over training camp, some of those lines. We have a good back end then we have Marty there. It’s  pretty exciting to be going into a season with those types of players.”

This season also marks the return of center Jason Arnott. The hero of the Devils’ 2000 Stanley Cup title was re-acquired in June via trade with Nashville. He and Patrik Elias combined for the Cup-clinching goal versus Dallas 10 years ago, and will face the Stars in their first game together in eight years.

“It’s funny that way that that’s who we’re playing first game of the season,” Arnott said. “It should be exciting.”

It’s normal for players to feel a little nervous for their first game of the season. Arnott said it will be more than the typical nerves for him tonight.

“It’s different,” he said. “Usually, you get a little nervous going out for the first night, but just bringing back the memories and looking up at the banners, things like that. That’ll get my nerves going and get me excited.”

MacLean will go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen tonight as rookie blueliners Matt Taormina and Alexander Urbom will make their NHL debuts. Martin Brodeur will start his 16th consecutive season opener.
 
“Sure we have to watch them, but we also have to let them play too,” MacLean said of his young defensemen. “They have to feel comfortable to play. We have to feel confident in playing them. They may make mistakes, they may not make mistakes. Someone else may make mistakes, but mistakes happen. Anytime they make a mistake, it’s not going to be from lack of effort. We can live with that. We’ll correct them when the time is right.”

Taormina had a strong debut with Lowell (AHL) last season, collecting 10 goals, 40 assists for 50 points. The product of Providence College will be used at the point on the power play.

He and Urbom received support from veteran blueliner Colin White.

“Whitey asked Urbom and I if we were ready, if we were excited, nervous about our first game,” said Taormina, whose parents and brother made the trip from the Detroit area for tonight’s game. “Yeah, it’s always been kind of a dream come true to get up here and play. Now it’s your job, so you let it sink in for a bit, but you’ve got to get down to work, so you try and block out those nerves.”

Taormina has a mental game plan in place.

“Just keep it simple,” he said. “Just play my game and not overdo anything. People sometimes, when you get nervous, have a tendency to overhandle the puck and make quick decisions – not the right decisions. Relax and play my game, keep it simple to start. Let it sink in and play my game.”

Said Urbom: “It’s just going to be so much fun to play my first NHL game.”

The 6-5, 215-lb., 19-year-old felt all along that he had a shot to make the big club. He expected that his family would be able to watch the game on pay-per-view back home in his native Stockholm.

“I knew that there was a change,” Urbom said. “Everyone that comes to camp has a chance to make the team. It’s just playing as well as I’ve played from here on out.”

The 73rd overall choice in 2009 knows what he has to do tonight: “Play simple and play hard. Work and do what you’re used to doing out there.”

He wasn’t nervous this morning, but indicated that could change as puck drop approached.

“It’s a special game, of course,” he said.
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