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Devils continue playoff push at Dallas

by David Kalan
DEVILS (25-30-4) at STARS (31-22-6)


Last 10: New Jersey 9-0-1; Dallas 2-7-1.

Season Series: This is the second meeting of the season for Dallas and New Jersey. The teams met opening night in Newark, when, in what would be something of an ominous portent of the Devils' first-half struggles, the Stars rallied back from two separate deficits before taking the game 4-3 in overtime.

Big Story: The last time Dallas winger Jamie Langenbrunner saw the Devils he was wearing red and black with them. Since being dealt by New Jersey to Dallas, where he started his career, earlier this season, the Devils' fortunes have changed dramatically. New Jersey is now one of the hottest teams in the League while the previously division-leading Stars have fallen on hard times. With both teams desperately seeking the two points, this may not be the most convivial of reunions once the puck drops.

Team Scope:

Devils: The road back is still long, but things are far more comfortable in the Garden State than earlier this season. After soundly defeating Carolina Saturday night in Raleigh, New Jersey has now gone 15-1-2 in its last 18 games with seven straight wins overall. The hot streak has shrunk the Devils' distance from the eighth seed to 10 points, which, while still large, is not nearly what it once was. Helping to take a large bite out of that deficit has been New Jersey's play not just overall, but against Carolina specifically. With the Hurricanes currently holding the East's final playoff spot, Saturday's win was the Devils' third against the Canes in 12 days.

Much of the credit for New Jersey's recent hot streak can be put on the shoulders of backup goalie Johan Hedberg, whose play over the last two weeks has, to some extent, bailed out an offense that has scored four goals just twice in its last 11 games. That doesn't mean the team is without contributors, however. Ilya Kovalchuk leads the charge with 12 points over a current 10-game scoring streak, but Brian Rolston (four points in four games) and franchise scoring leader Patrik Elias (seven points in five games) have also played pivotal roles in the Devils' current winning streak.

Stars: If one was searching for a mirror opposite of New Jersey's good fortune, they'd be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Dallas. The Stars are embroiled in a brutal slump that has seen them lose their last four games and eight of nine overall. The skid has dropped the Stars from the top of the Pacific into the cluster of teams that is scrapping for one of the last few postseason berths in the West. Dallas still holds the eighth spot as a result of tiebreakers, but with plenty of time left in the season, that position is awfully tenuous.

Perhaps in hopes of shaking up the roster, Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk shipped promising winger James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh Monday for defenseman Alex Goligoski. While Neal has been a productive player in Dallas, the team's relative glut of wingers and thin blueline could make this a savvy allocation of resources for the Stars. Time will tell, but with the hottest team in the League coming into town, Dallas' new addition will get tested right away.

Who's Hot: While Kovalchuk drives a hard bargain, there may be no player in the League hotter than Hedberg. In his last six starts, the Moose is 6-0-0 with a miniscule 1.14 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage. ... Ironically, the hottest Star right now just may be Langenbrunner, who has three points in Dallas' last two games.
Injury Report: The Stars are still playing without All-Star center Brad Richards (concussion) and may also be missing defenseman Nicklas Grossman, who is listed as questionable with a hip/groin injury. The Devils could see the return of goalie Martin Brodeur, who has missed several games with a sprained MCL. The future hall-of-famer was active this weekend, but didn't get a start as New Jersey rode Hedberg's hot play in net.

Stat Pack: How different has New Jersey been since Langenbrunner was dealt to Dallas? With their well-liked former-captain in the room this season the Devils had just 22 points after 40 games. In just 19 games since then, New Jersey has racked up 32.

Puck Drop: This looks like a textbook example of two teams going in opposite directions, but a new infusion of scoring from the back end could be enough to shake the Stars from the funk. If the Devils can keep rolling, however, their stop in Dallas -- the first on a three-game road trip -- could further fuel the momentum of New Jersey's impossible comeback.
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