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Measuring-stick time for Devils, Hawks

by David Kalan

DEVILS (28-9-1) at BLACKHAWKS (26-10-3)

Last 10: New Jersey 8-2-0; Chicago 7-3-0.

Season Series: This is the first meeting between New Jersey and Chicago. The Devils and Hawks split two games last March, including a win on March 17 that made Martin Brodeur the winningest goaltender in NHL history, and a 3-2 overtime win for the Hawks 10 days later.

Big Story: The Devils are making a rare visit to Chicago for New Year's Eve, where they and the Blackhawks will face off in a potential Stanley Cup Final preview. It will also be the first time Hawks center John Madden faces his former club, with which he won two Stanley Cups and finished in the top two in voting for the Selke Trophy four times in nine seasons.

Team Scope:

Devils: While Chicago was expected to be in contention for the Stanley Cup Finals this season, New Jersey has surprised many. There were concerns that coach Jacques Lemaire's defense-first system might limit the offensive potential of many of the Devils' young stars, Zach Parise in particular, but Lemaire appears to be pushing all the right buttons so far. In his second tour of duty in New Jersey, the hall of famer has New Jersey contending with Washington and the defending-champion Penguins for the top seed in the East after streaking through December to the tune of 11 wins in 14 games. As for limiting Parise's offensive progress, the winger has remained among the top scoring forces in the NHL while sitting at or near the top of the League's plus/minus lead for most of the season.

On the back end, New Jersey has managed to hold down opponents despite missing defenseman Paul Martin, who has been out since October with a broken arm. With the ageless Brodeur leading the League in wins and continuing his assualt on the record books -- the future hall of famer broke Terry Sawchuk's once-considered unbreakable mark for career shutouts last week against Pittsburgh -- the Devils are well positioned as they end 2009 with a big test in Chicago.

Blackhawks: Chicago is coming off a frustrating loss to Dallas Tuesday night, but the Hawks, who would have had their best 39-game start in 38 years with a win against the Stars, are still sitting pretty. After sweeping a home-and-home with Nashville this past weekend, the Hawks have a comfortable cushion in the Central Division as they contend with San Jose and Phoenix for the Western Conference lead. Patrick Kane continued torching opposing goaltenders Tuesday, scoring two goals for the second straight night, and bringing his total to seven markers in the last five games. With Jonathan Toews also contributing at a remarkable pace -- he has eight points in his last four games -- Chicago's offense has become downright scary as it churns on full cylinders.

If there is a place for concern for the Hawks, it might be in net where Cristobal Huet was removed Tuesday after giving up four goals on 10 shots. But given that Huet, who is 17-8-2 with a 2.13 goals-against average, has been stellar for much of this year, he will likely be given a mulligan for the off night. Huet should get the call Thursday and be back to his old self. And even if the Frenchman does begin to slip in his play, the Hawks will still be a tough team to score on. Backup netminder Antti Niemi is tied for second in the League with four shutouts this season.

Who's Hot: Beyond two of the top teams in the League, this matchup will also pit two of the NHL's brightest young wingers against eachother. Kane's recent streak is well documented, but he is a consistent force, leading the Hawks in scoring this year with 44 points. In New Jersey, Parise leads New Jersey with 42 points, and recently snapped a surprising 12-game goal-less streak with two scores against Atlanta on Monday, but his drought is misleading. During that stretch Parise still dished out 10 assists.

Injury Report: The Devils added some grit Monday, as David Clarkson returned to the lineup after missing 13 games with a broken bone in his right ankle. Clarkson showed little tentativeness, displaying his trademark physical play while grabbing a fighting major. New Jersey may be without defenseman Bryce Salvador, however, who was out Wednesday against the Penguins with a lower-body injury. The Hawks are mostly healthy with the exception of Dave Bolland, who is out until at least February following back surgery.

Stat Pack: If Chicago thinks its catching New Jersey at the right time -- the Devils will be arriving in Chicago early Thursday morning after hosting the Penguins Wednesday night -- the Hawks might be surprised. While teams are expected to be sluggish on the second half of a back-to-back, the Devils are actually 6-0-0 this season when faced with a quick turnaround.

Puck Drop: While this game will have minimal effect in the standings on either team, it will still be a major test for both the Hawks and Devils, whose rosters are fairly short on Stanley Cup experience. This week will have been a significant test for New Jersey, as the Devils will have faced Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago in a span of six days in battles for division, conference and League supremacy. The Hawks and Devils are clearly not in direct competition with one another for division titles or playoff seedings, but this matchup should be a treat for what is expected to be a raucus New Year's Eve crowd at the United Center. With both outfits setting their sights on a deep playoff run this year, Thursday night will serve as a valuable barometer of what both teams could very well be seeing come June.
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