New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils will do battle for second place in the Metropolitan Division on Saturday at Prudential Centre.
With 51 points, the Devils are currently one ahead of the Rangers with a game in hand, in large part due to their red-hot start, which has cooled drastically going 3-6-1 over their past 10 games.
New York, on the other hand, began the season wildly inconsistent, but a run of 7-2-1 over their last 10 has seen them leap up the standings and their confidence soar.
|What:||New York Rangers @ New Jersey Devils|
|Where:||Prudential Center, Newark, NJ|
|When:||13:00 ET, Saturday 7th January|
|How to watch:||SN, MSGSN, MSG|
The Devils haven't made the playoffs for four seasons and after finishing seventh last season with a 27-46-9 record and .384 points per game percentage, weren't expected to be challenging at the top end of such a competitive division this time around.
However, after going 24-12-3 with a much improved .654 points per game percentage, the Devils are not only expecting to deliver on their -900 odds of making the playoffs but are dreaming of bringing the glory days back to New Jersey by meeting their +1500 chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
The Devils won the Stanley Cup three times between 1995-2003 but have participated in the post-season just once since a Final loss in 2012.
New Jersey have spent that time re-building and the project has rapidly come to fruition this season. High draft picks Jack Hughes (24 goals, 22 assists), Jesper Brat (14 goals, 25 assists) and Captain Nico Hischier (18 goals, 19 assists) are all under 25 years-old and proving to be legitimate difference-makers in the NHL.
Goalie Vitek Vanecek - formerly of Washington Capitals - has also been a crucial addition in the off-season, going 14-5-2 with a .914 save percentage and 2.31 goals against average.
Each has played a large part in the Devils scoring the seventh most goals in the NHL (3.39) and conceding the third least (2.62).
Like their opponents on Saturday, the Rangers have had a long wait since their last Stanley Cup, which came in 1994 and was the franchise's fourth.
Before making the Eastern Conference Finals last season, New York had either not qualified for or been knocked out at the first round of the playoffs for four consecutive seasons.
Their deep run sprang optimism that first-round selections Filip Chytil, 23, Kaapo Kakko, 21, and Alexis Lafrenière, 21, will soon be capable of supporting superstars Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox to deliver a fifth championship to the famous city of New York.
While Chytill (11 goals, 10 assists) and Kakko (nine goals, nine assists) have done well to continue their upward trajectory, all eyes are currently on the highest pick of all three, Lafrenière (five goals, 12 assists) who was recently scratched and challenged to "be better" by coach Gerard Gallant.
Lafrenière is yet to deliver on the hype which surrounded him when he was drafted first overall in 2020. In 174 regular season games, the winger has 69 points (36 goals, 33 assists) and his response to recent criticism will be fascinating, not least as his entry level contract runs out at the end of the season and puts his future with the organisation in doubt.
The Rangers are averaging 3.25 goals per game (13th) and have conceded 2.68 per game (seventh). They are +950 to go one step further than last season and win the Eastern Conference and +1800 to hoist the Stanley Cup.
The teams have met twice already this season, both at New York's Madison Square Garden, and each side has won once, the Devils 3-5 in late November and the Rangers 4-3 in overtime during mid-December.
The pair of games were relatively even but with two major contrasts. New Jersey won 60% of face-offs in the first game and 59% in the second, in large part due to the excellence of centreman Hischier on the dot which meant they controlled a lot of the possession at even strength.
Hischier has taken 792 face-offs this season, the fifth most in the league and won 54.6%, sixth best of players to have taken more than 700.
An area of concern for New Jersey will be New York's powerplay which scored twice on seven chances over the previous two meetings and is performing a much better 24% (11th) than their own which was blanked on five chances and is 20.5% over the season (22nd).
The Devils will have home advantage this time where they are 10-10-2 with the Rangers 13-5-2 on the road.