After losing their last five games, New Jersey Devils' red-hot start to the NHL season has begun to cool and on Wednesday they will face a challenge to hold on to top spot in the Metropolitan Division against second-placed Carolina Hurricanes.
The pair have a matching 44 points after 31 games, with New Jersey just ahead on games won in regulation time (21).
Under coach Rob Brind'Amour the Hurricanes have won their respective division for three seasons straight and after winning five games in a row have their sights set on leapfrogging the Devils in to first place.
New Jersey have qualified for the playoffs just once in 10 years and, while they came into the season hoping to end a four-year drought, they were not expected to be challenging the likes of the Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers for the divisional lead.
Without several key players for extended periods to begin the season, including number-one goalie Frederik Andersen, off-season acquisition Max Pacioretty and the sensational Sebastian Aho, the Hurricanes have remained in contention for top spot in a competitive Metropolitan Division based on their outstanding defensive record.
The Hurricanes have scored just 2.90 average goals per-game which ranks 24th in the NHL but their average goals-against of 2.63 is a proud fifth.
It's for that reason that Brind'Amour's side remain so consistent and why he is the first coach in their history to guide them to four straight playoff appearances.
Despite their recent downturn in form, the Devils faithful have been treated to a spectacular first quarter of the season and are excited for a future which will be led by 23-year-old Nico Hischier (13 goals, 16 assists) and Jack Hughes, 21, (16 goals, 20 assists) who have proved themselves to be game changers.
For the first time in many years, New Jersey have also benefited from consistent goaltending with Vitek Vanecek, acquired from the Washington Capitals, going 12-3-2 with a .912 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average.
The form of the 26-year-old has helped the Devils record the third best defensive record in the NHL, conceding an average of 2.48 goals per-game.
After their most recent 4-2 defeat to the Florida Panthers, captain Hischier bemoaned the Devils' recent lack of scoring which generally has been a strength this season averaging 3.45 goals per-game which ranks sixth in the NHL.
In the five-game losing skid, New Jersey have scored 11, just four in the past three games, whilst conceding 20.
An intriguing matchup will occur on the blue-line as two influential offensive defencemen come up against each other.
The 29-year-old Dougie Hamilton of the Devils, and 37-year-old Brent Burns of Hurricanes each sit fourth on their team for points and have been a driving force on the back-end.
Burns is in his first season with Carolina and has 22 points (four goals, 18 assists) while Hamilton, a former Hurricane, is in his second season with New Jersey and has 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists).
Each will play a key role on their sides special teams which both would agree need to improve, particularly the powerplay which for Carolina sits at 18.3% (27th) and for New Jersey is 22.0% (23rd).
Penalty killing has been less of a problem for each side but still with room for improvement with the Hurricanes at 79.4% (15th) and the Devils at 80.6% (10th).
In the absence of Pacioretty and Aho, Carolina's recent first-round selections Andrei Svechnikov (second overall in 2018) and Martin Necas (12th overall in 2017), have carried the offensive load.
The 22-year-old Svechnikov leads the team with 17 goals in 30 games and is second for points with 29, behind 23-year-old Necas who has 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists).
Before collecting a lower-body injury, Aho amassed 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 27 games and with him still set to be missing, the Hurricanes will again look to Svechnikov and Necas to provide the offense against the Devils.
Both the Devils and Hurricanes have spent significant periods outside the playoffs in recent years. New Jersey have made just one post-season appearance since 2013 and before the arrival of Brind'Amour Carolina went from 2010 to 2018 without any playoff experience.
The bad times have led to good for both teams, though, as they have done an excellent of job of rebuilding through the draft and each should feel positive about their future.
Brind'Amour spent nearly a decade as a player for the Hurricanes and in 2006 as captain led them to their only Stanley Cup championship. He is +1000 to lead them to a second as coach this season and +1800 to win the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year which he won in 2020/21.
The Devils won the Stanley Cup three times between 1995 and 2003 and, after several consecutive post-season appearances and a Final defeat in 2012, the franchise then went into freefall for almost a decade.
With the rebuild project finally coming to fruition under experienced coach Lindy Ruff, the Devils are to end their four-year drought from the playoffs and +1300 to deliver a fourth Stanley Cup to New Jersey this season.