No one wants to play the Devils from here on out. They're playing like the elite team they should have been.
- Pierre LeBrun, of ESPN, on twitter this morning.
The Carolina Hurricanes are currently a playoff team. The New Jersey Devils are not.
The Canes only just moved above the "red line" into the eighth spot on Saturday night, defeating the Atlanta Thrashers in overtime. The Devils (19-30-4) are 13th in the East, but are riding an incredible series of wins having gone 9-1-2 in their last 12 outings. The veteran team has found the confidence to win that most expected of them six months ago, before the wheels fell off of their 2010-11 season. And despite the extreme odds, this 12-game run has opened the door for the Devils and their fans to consider the impossible.
The word out of New Jersey is that the Hurricanes, who they face three times in the next twelve days, are the primary obstacle to the Devils dreams of making the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season (going back to when Jeff Skinner was 4 years old). Though Sportsclubstats puts their odds at ridiculously slim .013% (that's 13 out of 100,000) and allows them only four losses in the 29 games remaining this season, they are seemingly sipping the Koolaid (or at least thinking about mixing up a batch). Unlike Canes fans who are familiar with the need for a strong spring run to make the post-season, this is new territory for the Devils faithful, so forgive them if they are unfamiliar with knowing when it's time to give up. As long as they believe it's possible, these proud players will battle for every point in the standings to save this season.
Tonight's match up (combined with the two remaining games in the season series) is being cast as key to the Devils' achieving the playoffs. After contributing two goals in the Devils 4-1 win in Montreal Sunday, uber-wing Ilya Kovalchuk put it this way,
"In the next (12) days we've got three games against them. That will probably be the key stretch for us. If we want to make a real push, then we have to get points in those games."
After the jump, the match ups and other news from both clubs.
Final Roadie of the Season
For the Canes it's all about getting off to a good start on this final long road trip of the season. Having secured the 8th spot Saturday, the last thing they want is to slip back to the wrong side of the red line. As Coach Paul Maurice commented yesterday before heading out to RDU,
"We want to hold water in this stretch and then make the big push toward the end."
The Canes official blogger, Paul Branecky had more on the road trip and its implications in his post yesterday. Canes' Last Big Trip a Tough One - Tracking the Storm Blog, The Hurricanes will soon see the road-heavy first half even out over the stretch drive, but not before enduring a difficult trip over the next week.
Prior to Saturday's game there was much speculation on how Maurice would slot his left wings, Zach Boychuk, Jiri Tlusty and Sergei Samsonov. Many of us were surprised that he stuck with the starting lines all night. Will Mo continue to keep Samsonov with Staal and Cole, or will Boychuk be given more opportunity to use his speed and quick hands on the top scoring line? Tlusty's 2-point night, and synergy with Brandon Sutter and Patrick Dwyer, means that line likely won't be disturbed, nor will the Ruutu-Skinner-LaRose line that we've been seeing every game for weeks.
The leaders have some history
Ilya Kovalchuk, the $100-million man, is no stranger to the Hurricanes, having played the first 7 1/2 years of his career for the Southeast Division rival Atlanta Thrashers. He comes into tonight's game with 61 pts (31g, 30a) in 50 career games vs the Canes. Containing the Russian superstar will be the highest priority for Carolina tonight. His numbers below speak to his early struggles this season.
|2010 - Ilya Kovalchuk||52||17||17||34||-24||22||5||0||4||152||22:07|
The Hurricanes leader most familiar with Kovalchuk would be Eric Staal, currently 6th in the league for goals scored, and 10th for points. Staal's 53 points mark his highest total through the Hurricanes' first 53 games since 2005-06. Erik Cole and Cam Ward have also had their fair share of encounters through the years.
|2010 - Eric Staal||53||26||27||53||-11||52||8||2||6||203||22:01|
What these two stars both bring every night is lots of ice time, ranked as the top two forwards for average time-on-ice per game, over 22 minutes per night. Kovaluchuk played over 25 minutes in Montreal Sunday, and Staal played nearly 26 in the OT win Saturday.
Both stars are also are struggling with their plus/minus stat as Staal's -11 is the worst of his career. Kovy's -24 is 2nd worst in the League (and I suspect a career worst as well).
The Goal Tenders
Veteran Martin Brodeur left the game Sunday after tweaking his right knee in the first period, and will not be available tonight. Updates from the Devils' twitter tell us that "Brodeur is day-to-day with a knee sprain that is non-operable. No timetable for a return."
Johan Hedberg will start, and the Devils have recalled Mike McKenna from Albany to serve as back-up. In the most recent matchup between the two teams on New Years Day, Hedberg came in to relieve Brodeur early in the 1st period and allowed 3 goals on 18 shots in the Devils' 6-3 loss. In his career, which includes four seasons in Atlanta as well, Hedberg's record vs the Canes is 9-7-2, with a 2.96 GAA and two shutouts in 22 games.
|2010 - Johan Hedberg||23||1051||6||10||51||2.91||485||434||.895||1|
Cam Ward is expected to start, which makes for thirteen consecutive games. UPDATE: @JohnForslund confirms:
All systems go in Newark. No line changes. Ward between pipes. Huge game! See you the Rock, 7 et, FSC.
|2010 - Cam Ward||46||2629||23||17||119||2.72||1479||1360||.920||2|
The Canes are among the least penalized teams in the League (ranking 8th for short handed situations on the season). Conversely, they are tied for first in the league for having had the most power play opportunities with 222 in 53 games. You can thank Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu who are among the tops for penalties drawn. With 26, Skinner is tied for first in the NHL with Ovechkin according to Behind the Net. Staal and Cole also doing their share to gain the man advantage (though Staal leads the team for minor penalties taken too).
The Devils are struggling mightily on the power play, having gone scoreless in 12 opportunities in their last 5 games.Over the same stretch, they have allowed 3 PP goals on 15 kills, for a respectable 80% PK rate.
For the Canes, Jussi Jokinen continues to rehabilitate his lower body injury and did not travel with the team allowing Zach Boychuk a greater opportunity to show he is ready for the NHL full time. Ruutu did not attend practice Monday as he wasn't feeling well (apparently he felt worse for the game Saturday), but should be good to go tonight.
Injuries have been a significant contributor to the frustration in Newark this season. Tonight, other than Brodeur, the Devils' young wing Zach Parise is out, still recovering from knee surgery in November. Defensemen Bryce Salvador, Matt Taormina, and Matthew Corrente are all on the Injured reserve.
Both these went up today and help set the stage for the next few weeks:
Pitkanen hopes to stay - NewsObserver.com
As the NHL's Feb. 28 trade deadline approaches, there may be teams that make interesting offers to the Canes for Pitkanen. As for Pitkanen, he insists he would like to sign a new contract and stay with Carolina. "It has been 21/2 years, and it has been great," he said in an interview. "It's a great organization, great fans and great people here.
Jiri Tlusty - HurricanesBeat.com, Kurt Dusterberg A Career Unfolding, Tlusty showing hints of a complete game
New Jersey coverage
It's always worthwhile to check in with the SBN Devils' blog, In Lou We Trust. John Fischer has a great write-up this morning from their side of things focusing on all the reasons the Devils should expect this to be a tough game to pull off a win. Game 54 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Carolina Hurricanes - In Lou We Trust
Some Devils fans are looking at tonight's game against Carolina as an important stepping stone for an improbable playoff run. This discounts Carolina's situation. They just got to eighth place by the number of wins they have; and while they have  games in hand on Atlanta, they know they can't stop now.
Another preview for tonight, Three games vs. Carolina huge if Devils hope to make playoffs | NJ.com comes from Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger who also blogs at the aptly named "Devils beat reporters blog" NJ.com
Tom Gulitti, beat writer for The Record, who covered the Kovy contract mess better than anyone last summer, provides updates regularly throughout the day at his blog, Fire & Ice.
Puck drops shortly after 7pm. The game will be broadcast locally in HD on FSCarolinas and listen on the radio at 99.9 ESPN the Fan. We'll have our gamethread open at 6:30.