Carolina Hurricanes, the NHL's most in-form team, begin the New Year with a trip to New Jersey to take on the Devils at Prudential Center on Sunday.
The Hurricanes are on a 10-game winning streak and have lost just once in their past 15 games (14-0-1). The run has catapulted them up the standings and ahead of New Jersey into first place in the Metropolitan Division (24-6-6).
The Devils (23-11-2) held top spot for much of the first quarter of the season but their red-hot early form has cooled with them losing seven of their last 10 games (2-7-1), dropping to second in the division.
Just four points now separates the Devils from sixth-placed New York Rangers in the ultra-competitive division and they must carry forward the momentum from a huge 4-2 victory over Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, especially at home (10-9-1), to meet their odds to end their four-year absence from the playoffs.
Carolina's 54 points and excellent .750 points per game percentage ranks second in the entire NHL to just the Boston Bruins (59; .843) and they have done it without their number-one goalie, Frederik Andersen and two of their top-nine forwards in Max Pacioretty and Ondrej Kase.
The Hurricanes' success has been built on their defence and, despite being without Andersen since early November, have earned the third best goals against record in the NHL (2.50 average per-game). Their average shots against is the best in the league (26.2) and their penalty-kill ranks a healthy ninth at 81.6%.
In Andersen's absence, rookie Pyotr Kochetkov has risen to the challenge going 10-1-4 with a .928 save percentage and 1.94 goals against average (GAA).
Andersen was 5-3-0 with a .891 save percentage and 2.72 GAA at the time of his injury.
Like the Hurricanes, the Devils have built their much-improved season on a stingy defence conceding the fourth least goals in the league (2.56) and their penalty kill has also been strong, sitting fifth at 82.8%.
New Jersey are matched in first with Carolina for shots against (34.9) and have enjoyed solid goaltending, particularly from usual starter Vitek Vanecek who is 12-5-2 with a .910 save percentage and 2.39 GAA.
While the pair top the NHL in many major defensive categories, both have struggled somewhat offensively which may make for a low-scoring affair on Sunday.
New Jersey have scored an average of 3.33 goals per game which, while eighth in the NHL has flattered to deceive in their recent run of defeats, falling to 2.4 over the past 10 games.
Carolina's average of 3.08 goals per game places them 20th in the league for scoring, and their powerplay of 19.2% is 25th.
Both teams produce a high volume of shots, with each in the top five, but their conversion rate is among the worse in the league, so while each goalie may be busy, not a lot of goals are expected and a fine margin is likely to separate the two.
The Hurricanes have been thankful to come out on the right side of the scoreline more often than not, but will certainly welcome the return of Max Pacioretty and Ondrej Kase in the New Year as they attempt to reach the playoffs.
Martin Necas (15 goals, 20 assists) and Andrei Svechnikov (19 goals, 13 assists) have carried the offensive burden with Sebastian Aho also recording 11 goals, 17 assists despite missing two weeks in December through injury.
Kase played one game for Carolina after being signed from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the off-season before being injured while Pacioretty was even more unfortunate, tearing his Achilles before even making his debut after being acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights.
The 27-year-old Kase had 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in 50 games for the Leafs last season and Pacioretty 37 points (19 goals, 18 assists) in 39 games for the Golden Knights.
Both are back practicing with the Hurricanes and, while no date has been set for them to return, their addition to what is already proving to be one of the league's best line-ups will make Carolina a major threat to deliver on their odds of becoming Stanley Cup champions for the second time in their history.
New Jersey don't have similar help coming, but do have the luxury of knowing their leading trio of Jack Hughes, 21-years-old, (20 goals, 21 assists), Jesper Bratt, 24, (12 goals, 22 assists) and Nico Hischier, 23, (15 goals, 18 assists) have plenty of youthful exuberance left in the tank and they are to win the Stanley Cup.