Kovalchuk opened the scoring with his 20th of the year.
The more the Devils say they’re not thinking about the postseason, the closer they’re moving toward the final playoff spot.
They won their fifth in a row Wednesday, edging Carolina 3-2 at Prudential Center to climb within 12 points of the eighth-seeded Hurricanes.
Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias scored 1:25 apart early in the third period to give the Devils a 3-0 lead. The Hurricanes cut the deficit when Sergei Samsonov tallied at 8:17. Tuomo Ruutu made it 3-2 with 2.8 seconds left in regulation after Cam Ward had been pulled for an extra attacker.
But the Devils' (23-30-4) incredible run continues. Jacques Lemaire's squad has gone 13-1-2 in its last 16, improving to 7-0-1 since the break.
So is the coach finally thinking about the playoffs?
“Playoffs?” Lemaire responded. “What’s that?”
Ilya Kovalchuk scored his team-leading 20th of the season, extending his points streak to eight games (six goals, four assists).
“It’s big,” Kovalchuk said. “Every game is a big game, but those games are four-point games. The next two games will be the same. That’s nice when you play and the game means something.”
Count Kovalchuk among the believers.
"We expect that from ourselves and we still believe," he said. "We’re going to go there every night and show up."
We expect that from ourselves and we still believe. We’re going to go there every night and show up.- Ilya Kovalchuk
Johan Hedberg improved to 10-10-2 with his fourth straight win. He posted 25 saves and has stopped 107 of 113 shots while Martin Brodeur recovers from a knee sprain. Together, he and Kovalchuk have been a big part of what's been going right in New Jersey.
“That’s the way we’re going to have to do it,” Hedberg said of the Devils’ winning ways. “It’s much more fun to win than lose. We just have to keep working as hard as we are now and keep trying to get the big win the next night.”
Rolston admitted there’s no one in the dressing room that doesn’t have the playoffs in the back of his mind. The Devils host the Rangers on Friday before visiting Carolina on Saturday for their final meeting of the season with the Hurricanes.
Rolston and Elias each notched a goal and an assist in the third.
“We’re excited, believe me,” Rolston said. “You don’t want to put the cart before the horse here. We dug ourselves a huge hole and it’s going to take a lot to get out of it. We’ve been playing great. We can’t be satisfied because we can’t afford to lose, it’s that simple. I think we’re taking that kind of mindset in every game, and we have a lot of confidence as a team. We are very excited.”
Rolston scored 34 seconds into the third while the teams skated 4-on-4. Anssi Salmela rushed into Carolina territory and dished to Elias, who fired a shot from the left circle. Ward made the stop, but couldn’t control the rebound and Rolston backhanded home his ninth of the season to make it 2-0.
“[Salmela] made the pass over the Patrik, Patrik shot it, blocker save, it went straight in the air,” Rolston said. “I was kind of coming in as a late man and I’m the only one I think that saw the puck. As soon as it landed, I just whacked it with the backhand and got it in the empty side.”
It was quickly 3-0 after Rolston found a streaking Elias, who beat Jamie McBain 1-on-1, then flipped a backhander past Ward’s stick side at 1:59.
“We stretched the defensemen out,” Rolston said. “They had no gap on Patty, and Patty was coming quick. They couldn’t gap up on him and he made a great move and a great shot. Those are two big goals obviously to start the third and we’re happy to get them, for sure.”
After a scoreless first, Kovalchuk gave the Devils a 1-0 lead in the second. He turned Joe Corvo inside out at the top of the left circle, then snapped a shot by Ward’s glove at 5:41. Nick Palmieri set the screen in front.
The timing of the goal couldn’t have been better.
“It was important at that point because I thought we were playing extremely well at that time,” Lemaire said. “Extremely well. Moved the puck well, we did a lot of good things. Just to encourage the guys that the work they’re doing, it pays off. If on the other hand, they didn’t get the goal, you never know how players will take it.”
Hedberg came to the rescue twice in the second to protect the lead. Jussi Jokinen missed wide left on his breakaway at 9:30, but Hedberg recovered to deny Erik Cole after Jokinen set him up from the end boards. With 3:14 remaining in the middle frame, Hedberg was ready for Jerome Samson’s quick shot from the bottom of the right circle on Brandon Sutter’s feed from behind the net.
Jumping out to a 3-0 lead gave Hedberg some much deserved breathing room in the third.
“Yeah, but it’s also a scary lead to have because you think you’re home safe,” Hedberg said. “They get one and get all the momentum going, all of a sudden you’re battling again. For me, I just felt like I was going to try to hold the fort as long as I can. They were going to get chances, but we battled it out.”
Samsonov buried a Jiri Tlusty feed on the doorstep to make it 3-1 at 8:17. The Devils' penalty kill responded after Colin White was called for interference at 8:42.
“We’ve been playing a phenomenally strong team game all over the ice,” Hedberg said. “Tonight we got some big goals and it’s the first time in a while we’ve been up in the third. I think the key is after they scored [to make it 3-1], we killed off [Colin White’s] penalty. They get to 3-2 there it’s a different game again.”
Lemaire said Brodeur will practice with the team on Thursday. He has been sidelined since Feb. 6. … Anton Volchenkov served the last of his three-game suspension and is eligible to return in Friday’s home game against the Rangers.
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