If the Devils do end up making the playoffs, the games couldn’t be any more intense than Friday’s showdown was against the Rangers.
The fifth installment of this year’s Hudson River rivalry delivered hard-hitting, end-to-end action at the start before Ilya Kovalchuk and Johan Hedberg stole the show in a 1-0 Devils victory.
The Devils (24-30-4) ran their season-high wins streak to six in a row, improving to 14-1-2 in their last 17 games. New Jersey has won back-to-back meetings with the Rangers since dropping the first three of the season series.
As he often has been during the Devils’ surge, Kovalchuk was the brightest star. His 21st of the season broke a scoreless tie in the second period, then held up as the game-winner – his fourth in six games.
Kovalchuk extended his points streak to nine games, and has collected seven goals and four assists over that span.
"Kovy, he's playing good," Jacques Lemaire said with a big smile. "He's playing really well."
Hedberg took care of business between the pipes, recording 16 saves for his second shutout of the season, 16th of his career.
"This is as good a defensive effort as I’ve ever had in the NHL," Hedberg said. "I can’t remember a game where I had to make these little saves that I had tonight. It’s just a tremendous job."
Kovalchuk electrified the sellout crowd with every touch of the puck. The roof at the Rock just about blew off after he beat Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway at 8:18 of the middle frame.
It’s a game. You have to have fun. They’re here to see goals, body checks, fights. I think they were excited, and I was too.- Ilya Kovalchuk
"We just wanted to score the first goal," Kovalchuk said. "I think at that point, we were playing really well and were outplaying them. We got a lot of chances, and on the power play we got good opportunities. It seemed like who scored first was going to win."
He made Marc Staal pay for mishandling a pass at the right point. Kovalchuk raced for the loose puck, carried in alone from the Rangers blue line and sniped a laser past Lundqvist’s catching glove. Anton Volchenkov assisted on Kovalchuk's goal in his return from a three-game suspension.
The crowd and the benches come to their feet when a scorer like Kovalchuk gets in alone. But Kovalchuk? He was in the zone.
"You don’t hear anything," Kovalchuk described. "You just want to score because it’s 1-on-1. I think forwards have more chances when they have breakaways than penalty shots, because the goalie can’t really focus. He tries to be ready but you can catch him by surprise."
Kovalchuk applauds the crowd after being selected First Star.
Even the celebration was memorable, with Kovalchuk pumping his arms to amp up the crowd.
"It’s a game," he said. "You have to have fun. They’re here to see goals, body checks, fights. I think they were excited, and I was too."
Meanwhile, Hedberg was enjoying the view from the other end.
"I had a good feeling," he said. "He came flying. He’s been playing tremendous for us in the last six, seven weeks here. He’s been as complete a player as I’ve ever seen. He’s working all over the ice, making the smart plays and scoring the big goals."
The fan support made it even sweeter.
"Guys were joking before the game that maybe it was going to feel like a road game tonight, but it definitely didn't," Hedberg said. "When the fans are excited and into it, it makes it so much more fun and interesting for us too."
Hedberg was Kovalchuk's teammate for four seasons in Atlanta, where Kovalchuk was known for his goals, and not for the two-way game he has refined under Lemaire.
"I think he's been asked to play a little bit more complete game," Hedberg said. "He always wanted to be responsible. I think he learned a lot, too, from Jacques. If he does the right things he's going to get the pucks in the right situations and he's extremely dangerous."
Four of Kovalchuk’s five shots came in the second, when the Devils’ advantage was 10-5. That didn’t include Kovalchuk’s dazzling double-deke to shed Artem Anisimov and Ryan Callahan before ringing a shot off the iron with 2:55 left in the period.
The contest didn’t start out as a careful tactical match between two clubs needing points. In the early going, the play was fast and furious.
The Devils are still 12 points behind the eighth-place Hurricanes, who beat Philadelphia, 3-2, at RBC Center on Friday. But New Jersey can move within 10 points of the final playoff spot with a win in Carolina on Saturday night.
"We take it seriously," said Hedberg. "We try to win every night, but we’re not going to look too far ahead. Tomorrow’s a new game and there’s no reason we cannot win that game. It’s zero-zero when it starts, we keep playing the way we are, we’ll have a good chance to win."
Hedberg was tested just over three minutes into the game. He stopped Mats Zuccarello coming down the right side, then denied Zuccarello’s two whacks at rebounds. Zuccarello carried around the net to set up Erik Christensen, who put the puck wide.
Andy Greene collected Christensen's miss and sent Brian Rolston in on a breakaway. Rolston didn’t get everything he wanted on his wrist shot, which Lundqvist stopped with his right pad at 3:35.
"If anybody's looking at the standings right now, you see we're far down," Rolston said. "But obviously on a nightly basis, we have to continue doing what we're doing and win hockey games. It's pretty much that simple."
The Devils held the territorial advantage in the first period, and led 12-5 in shots. They outshot the Rangers 28-16, overall.
Penalty killers didn't give up a shot after Kovalchuk was given a minor for high-sticking Wojtek Wolski at 9:51 of the third.
The Rangers pulled Lundqvist for the extra attacker with 1:26 to go. Hedberg was in position to stop Brandon Dubinsky’s wraparound chance at the left post with 39 seconds to go in regulation.
Notes Martin Brodeur returned to back up Hedberg and could start Saturday. He has missed five games since spraining his knee in Montreal on Feb. 6.
Brodeur said Friday morning he could play if called upon, but Lemaire was undecided following the win. Hedberg has allowed just six goals in five starts.
"I have to rest. The goalies have to rest," Lemaire said. "To think about this, that's too much."
-- Volchenkov needs one point for 100.
-- Devils and Rangers close out the season series at Madison Square Garden on April 9.
1 - 0 NJD
Holding the stick