The New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils kickstart the second "half" of their seasons with a clash at the Prudential Center at 7 p.m. EST (MSG+).
With a 31-12-4 record that has the Rangers sitting as the Eastern Conference's best team and the NHL's No. 2, they've shown that they have what it takes to be a top-tier team in the league. Now, however, the next 35 games transpire with a target on their backs, as teams will play with a chip on their shoulder with the hopes of knocking them off.
The Devils, 26-19-3, have 55 points, which ties them with three teams for the seventh and eighth playoff spots. Scoring hasn't really been a huge problem, but New Jersey has a negative-seven goal differential, primarily because of weak blueline play and goaltending that's been very inconsistent. Martin Brodeur has been very up-and-down this year, but had allowed only one goal in three of his five starts prior to the All-Star break. He gets the start in net against what appears to be Henrik Lundqvist.
Whether these teams reside in the NHL's basement or atop the league, games between the two are rarely uneventful. Nothing is better than a divisional battle between these intra-division rivals. The Rangers won the first meeting at New Jersey, 4-1 on Dec. 20, after scoring four straight unanswered goals following a very sluggish first period. The Devils have gone 8-5-2 since that game, with the Rangers going 12-4-0. Besides the difference in records, the biggest change since then is the play of Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk -- who has nine of his 19 goals, with seven coming in a six-game pan just prior to the All-Star break.
The Rangers' defense will have its hands full with Kovalchuk, along with leading point-getter Patrik Elias (46), Zach Parise (40) and rookie Adam Henrique. Of course, the Devils will have no easy task against 25-goal scorer Marian Gaborik and New York's wear-you-out, physical style. New York also has to hope the break did wonders for someone like Brad Richards (33 points) who has struggled in January with only five points.
Especially as the season heats up, special-teams play will be vital, and both of these squads rank near each other in each situation. Neither the Rangers (25th) nor the Devils (21st) have power plays that strike fear into the opponent, so it will be important to get that going down the stretch or it could become a major Achilles' heel. It's likely that neither power play finds its stride in this one, though, as New Jersey (second) and New York (third) are pretty much the best as they come. The Devils also lead the league with 11 shorthanded goals, half the amount it has on the power play.