Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias scored goals in a span of 1:25 early in the third period Wednesday night and Johan Hedberg made 14 of his 25 saves in the final 20 minutes to lead the Devils to a 3-2 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes at Prudential Center.
The win moved the Devils within 12 points of Carolina for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Still, don't dare ask coach Jacques Lemaire about the team's chances of qualifying with only 25 games remaining.
"Playoffs?" Lemaire asked. "What's that? Ay yi yi."
Well, it was worth a shot anyway, particularly since the Devils have gone 7-0-1 since the All-Star break and 13-1-2 in their last 16 games. They've also produced their first five-game winning streak since December 2009.
"We have to be realistic … we have a long way to go," Rolston said. "But there's not a player in here who doesn't have it in the back of their mind. We're excited, believe me, but you don't want to put the cart before the horse either.
"We dug ourselves in a huge hole, and it's going to take a lot to get out of it. We've been playing great but 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 right now."
The goals by Rolston and Elias gave the Devils a three-goal cushion that proved to be just big enough to survive a late Carolina rally. But Hedberg, who has won four straight games at a time when the Devils need him most while Martin Brodeur recovers from a non-operable right knee sprain, was stellar. The 37-year-old has stopped 106 of 112 shots while allowing just six goals during the four-game winning streak.
"Heddy was fantastic," Rolston said. "Early on, I thought we did a good job defensively, but he did stop those point blank shots. We have a tremendous respect and confidence in Heddy. He's a great goalie with experience. There's no reason he can't do the job and he's doing the job."
Lemaire was extremely pleased with Hedberg's play between the pipes. The coach also admitted that Brodeur would return to practice with the team on Thursday. While there's a possibility Brodeur could start against the New York Rangers on Friday at Prudential Center, it would be tough to sit Hedberg based on his performance of late.
Elias' game-winner, off a feed from Rolston, was a fine individual effort as he skated hard into the Carolina end before turning defenseman Jamie McBain inside out and backhanding home his 14th of the season at 1:59.
"It was reactionary," Elias said. "I had tons of speed there because they were coming against the flow towards our zone and I was coming out of the zone and Rollie made good play. It's difficult for the defenders to stay on top of you there, to get an angle and I made a nice play on them."
Rolston and Elias each had a goal and one assist in the victory.
"They had no gap on Patty and he was coming in quick (on his goal)," Rolston said. "They couldn't gap up on him and he made a great move and a great shot. Those are two big goals to start the third and we're happy to get them for sure."
Carolina, playing the finale of a five-game road swing before returning home Friday against the East-leading Philadelphia Flyers, closed within 3-1 when Sergei Samsonov jammed home a centering pass from Jiri Tlusty at 8:17 of the third period. Tuomo Ruutu then cut the deficit to 3-2 when he snapped home a shot from the slot off a feed from Eric Staal with just 2.8 seconds remaining and goalie Cam Ward pulled for an extra attacker. But it was too little, too late for the Hurricanes, who finished 1-2-2 on the road trip.
"You have to get the puck through the neutral zone without much fanfare (against the Devils), it's got to be simple, and we turned a lot of pucks over," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "I think we didn't handle or move the puck the way we needed to. Our quickness just wasn't there. Our legs just weren't where they needed to be. I didn't feel they were that quick, I just didn't think we were."
Ilya Kovalchuk's team-leading 20th of the season opened the scoring 5:41 into the second and was a thing of beauty. After collecting the puck in the left corner, Kovalchuk skated out to the point before turning defenseman Joe Corvo inside-out at the top of left circle and finally ripping a shot through a screen and just inside the right post. Kovalchuk's tally assured him at least 20 goals for the ninth straight season.
Rolston knocked in a rebound 34 seconds into the third to extend the lead to 2-0 before Elias' goal gave the Devils a seemingly insurmountable three-goal cushion.
Kovalchuk's goal enabled him to extend his season-high point-scoring streak to eight games, during which he's produced 6 goals and 10 points. He's connected for 10 goals during the Devils' recent 13-1-2 run and has 21 points in the 24 games that Jacques Lemaire has coached after producing just 18 in 32 under former bench boss John MacLean.
"I'm playing in a lot of situations, and I want to be in those situations," Kovalchuk said. "When the coach puts you there, you have to make sure you get the job done."
While Lemaire wouldn't discuss playoffs, he did compliment the play of his team.
"I'm very happy the way we played as a group," he said. "We moved the puck well, skated well and had guys that I didn't expect to play as good as they did, like David Clarkson. I think Clarkie played his best game since I've known him. He was good with the puck, skated, hit, and was good defensively."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale