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Kovalchuk back in fold, Devils host Stars in opener

by Brian Hunter
STARS (0-0-0) at DEVILS (0-0-0)

Season series:
First of two meetings, with New Jersey paying a visit to Dallas in February. They split last season's series, the home team winning each time. Stephane Robidas scored twice and had a career-high 4 points as the Stars won 5-3 on Nov. 21. Patrik Elias had a pair of goals and Martin Brodeur stopped all 28 shots he faced to lead the Devils to a 4-0 victory on Jan. 5.

Big story: In a way, it's the dawning of a new era for both teams. For the Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk plays his first game since signing a monster, 15-year contract last month that will take him into his 40s -- with Brodeur in the twilight of his great career, Kovalchuk is set to become the new face of this franchise. Meanwhile, the Stars begin life without Mike Modano and Marty Turco, as Kari Lehtonen takes over the reins in net.
Team Scope:

Stars: Coming off back-to-back non-playoff seasons for the first time since the franchise was based in Minnesota, it was time for Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk to make some changes. He cut ties with Modano, the NHL's all-time leading U.S.-born scorer, and will entrust goaltending duties to the young and talented, yet injury-prone Lehtonen. The Stars will rely on veterans like Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro as well as the continued growth of a young core of players including Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Jamie Benn to return them to prominence.

"I feel good about camp and about where we are heading into the season," Nieuwendyk told the Dallas Morning News. "We wanted to stress a hunger, and we've seen that."
Devils: While all eyes at the Prudential Center will undoubtedly be focused on Kovalchuk, this game also marks the NHL coaching debut of John MacLean, who played on New Jersey's first Stanley Cup championship team in 1995, as well as the first NHL game for center Adam Henrique and defenseman Alexander Urbom. Free-agent acquisitions Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov also make their debuts with the team on a revamped Devils blue line. As a result of salary-cap issues caused by Kovalchuk's signing, the team was only carrying 20 players on its roster as of Thursday.

"I think there is a level of excitement everybody was looking for with all the changes," Brodeur told the Newark Star-Ledger. "It's been a great camp. We got under the cap somehow."
Who's hot: Lehtonen stopped all 19 shots against him while playing the first two periods of the Stars' 4-3 overtime loss to the Blues in their final preseason game last Saturday, and finished the preseason with 75 saves on 77 shots, a .974 save percentage. … The Devils' expected top line of Travis Zajac centering Zach Parise and Kovalchuk on right wing connected on at least one goal in each of their final five preseason games.

Injury report: Dallas captain Brenden Morrow, who has been battling groin and back issues, practiced Thursday and is expected to be in the lineup. … New Jersey placed defenseman Bryce Salvador on injured reserve with a concussion, while defenseman Anssi Salmela will be out several months while recovering from right knee surgery.

Stat pack: Lehtonen had career bests in games (68), wins (34) and goals-against average (2.79) for the Thrashers in 2006-07, the only season in which he's started 50 or more games. … The Devils are 12-1-5 all-time when playing their season opener on home ice.

Puck drop:
It will be a busy weekend for both teams, as New Jersey travels to Washington on Saturday for the Capitals' home opener, while Dallas heads to the Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders will start their season.
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