NEWARK, N.J. -- The Devils have confidently talked all season about their belief that any conversation regarding the best teams in the Eastern Conference should include them.
If their last six days are any indication, they might be on to something.
The Devils' 5-2 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday at Prudential Center was their fourth straight, and third in a row against the three Atlantic Division teams ahead of them in the standings. New Jersey, which also beat the Rangers in a shootout and the Flyers on Saturday, is now one point behind the Penguins for fifth place in the Eastern Conference and has a game in hand.
New Jersey continues its gauntlet run through the Atlantic Division on Tuesday when it plays the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Pittsburgh will complete its four-game road trip (1-2 so far) in Montreal the same night.
"Everybody talked about how we can't play against teams that are on top of us," Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk said. "I think we sent a little message to the League – all the teams – that we're right there and they just have to be careful."
Kovalchuk is sending his own message that he's a complete two-way player now. He finished with three points for the third straight game, giving him 50 points in 47 games this season.
Kovalchuk's play on the penalty kill early in the second period led to Dainius Zubrus' shorthanded goal, which wound up being the game-winner. He stripped the puck from Paul Martin at the far right point, beat Martin up the ice, and was able to get a shot on Fleury. The rebound came out to Zubrus near the left post, and he put it in to the short side.
"I saw the puck in his skates and I poked it, and I just skate around him and tried to take the puck to the net," Kovalchuk said. "When you do that, good things usually happen. Zubie was right there to help me and get that rebound."
It appeared that Kovalchuk held Martin as he went around him, but the whistle never blew.
"You just try to work hard and go around him," Kovalchuk said. "Those things happen quick. If the ref decided (to blow the whistle), then it's his job to do."
Kovalchuk, who scored his 22nd goal of the season 2:21 into the game, also had the primary assist on Anton Volchenkov's first goal in his 102nd career game as a Devil. It gave New Jersey a 2-0 lead 10:27 into the first period.
"Finally I score," Volchenkov said. "Maybe they're starting to come now."
Alexei Ponikarovsky started the 3-on-2 rush down the right side and hit Volchenkov in the middle with a pass. Volchenkov passed up on the initial opportunity to shoot, and instead found Kovalchuk in the lower part of the left circle. Kovalchuk gave the puck right back to Volchenkov, who put it in from the left hash marks.
"I thought he was going to shoot for sure," Kovalchuk said. "He gave it to me, but I knew (Marc-Andre) Fleury was already there with me. It was a nice tic-tac-toe. He's got his first goal, we hope first of many."
Kovalchuk said everybody was having fun with Volchenkov on the bench after he scored. Devils coach Pete DeBoer said it brought a smile to his face to see Volchenkov score his first goal since April 1, 2010, when he was with Ottawa.
"When you see that guy and how he lays his body on the line to win games, it was great that he got the goal," DeBoer said. "And, I think, fitting. (On Saturday) I thought he was our best player outside of (Johan) Hedberg. If there was contact to be made, he was the first one there to take it. It's nice to see him get a goal."
Zach Parise added two points, including his 20th goal of the season. Martin Brodeur made 28 saves for his third straight win and even picked up an assist on David Clarkson's empty-net goal in the final minute. It was Clarkson's career-best 20th of the season.
"We're taking care of business," DeBoer said. "We know where we were heading into the All-Star break. The guys got a good rest, but we have a lot of veterans in there that have won their Stanley Cup rings, and they knew individually and collectively that we were going to have to take our game to another level over the last 30 games. I think that's what you're seeing."
Meanwhile, Fleury, who was excellent in Saturday's 2-1 win at Boston, was pulled in favor of Brent Johnson after giving up three goals on 12 shots in under 23 minutes of action. Fleury had won his previous nine starts.
Fleury's puck-handling gaffe behind the net directly led to Kovalchuk's goal that put the Devils up 1-0. It was created by a hard forecheck by Patrik Elias, who wound up with the primary assist.
"It's an area of his game that is much improved from where it was a couple of years ago," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Fleury's puck-handling skills. "But, he made a mistake early on. It allowed them an opportunity."
The Devils held a 4-1 lead going into the third period. Twenty-four hours ago, they were leading 6-0 after two periods in Philadelphia only to watch the Flyers come back and score four times to make it interesting.
Lightning did not strike twice. Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal with 8:17 remaining in the third, but that's all the Penguins got.
"We went through some tape before the game on what happened in the third period," DeBoer said. "We recognized some of the mistakes we made and it's one of those things where you learn from your mistakes. We handled the third period, obviously, much better."
Worse yet for Pittsburgh, Tyler Kennedy appeared to suffer a lower-body injury after colliding hard with Ponikarovsky and the end boards behind the Devils' net with 2:20 to play. Kennedy was able to get up and gingerly skate to the bench, but he needed help as he limped down the tunnel to the Penguins' dressing room.
Bylsma did not have an update on Kennedy's status. The Penguins are already playing with Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal.
"I know he's getting evaluated," Bylsma said of Kennedy. "We'll see."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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