-- While Jacques Lemaire remains skeptical about his team's chances of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring, he is unequivocally sure about one thing: Ilya Kovalchuk
is playing his best hockey as a member of the New Jersey Devils
Kovalchuk scored his team-leading 21st goal of the season in the second period and goalie Johan Hedberg made it stand up with 16 saves as the Devils scored a 1-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday before a sellout crowd of 17,625 in a playoff-like atmosphere at Prudential Center.
The victory enabled the Devils (24-30-4, 52 points), now 14-1-2 in their last 17 games, to remain 12 points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes, 3-2 winners over the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, will host the Devils on Saturday at RBC Center in Raleigh.
"Kovy is playing good … really well," Lemaire said. "It's the confidence he has. He works hard and he has the tools. Right now, he plays really hard and he has probably the best confidence since he's here. He's so dangerous right now."
In the end, chants of "Kovy" and "Moose" -- Hedberg's nickname -- filled the arena.
"Yeah, I'm feeling confident," said Kovalchuk, who joined the Devils in a trade from Atlanta just over a year ago. "I've been here more than a year, and the coach trusts me a lot. When you feel that kind of positive thing from behind bench, it gives you a lot of energy and you want to work really hard."
Kovalchuk extended his season-high point-scoring streak to nine games when he scored the lone goal of the game on a spectacular breakaway 8:18 into the second period. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal couldn't control a pass at the right point -- it hopped over his stick and Kovalchuk roared past him, picked up the puck, went in alone and ripped a low liner past Henrik Lundqvist's glove.
"In our end, he's responsible and we know where he's going to be and plays like everybody else," Devils forward Dainius Zubrus said. "Obviously, when he get the puck, he's not like everybody else. He's been playing great."
Kovalchuk, named the game's first star, has 7 goals and 10 points during his nine-game surge. New Jersey has 30 points in 17 second-half games after getting just 22 in the first 41 games of the season.
"They're a good team in the neutral zone, and they don't give you too much time to carry things in," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I thought we struggled to get it into their zone in the first period, and in the second we got it in but couldn't establish a forecheck. We were a step slow in everything -- in their zone, the neutral zone and defending our zone. We were better in the third period, and because of Hank (Lundqvist), we only needed one shot but we couldn't find a way to sustain enough offense."
Hedberg, who earned his fifth straight win and second shutout of the season, said Friday's effort was among the finest defensive performances he's ever been a part of.
"This is as good as a defensive effort that I ever had in the NHL," Hedberg said. "I can't remember a game where I had to make as few saves. It was a tremendous job and great team effort. I didn't really have to do too much tonight."
Hedberg, who entered the game 11-5-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in his career against the Rangers, had to make just 16 saves as he notched his second career shutout over the Blueshirts.
Lemaire remained noncommittal when asked if Hedberg would again get the nod against Carolina on Saturday -- or if Martin Brodeur, who served as backup against the Rangers, would make his first start in six games since going down with a right knee sprain. He was reactivated earlier Friday.
"Heddy is playing well at a time when we need him," Kovalchuk said. "With Marty almost back, they are both great goalies and they both deserve to be in the net, so it's great when you got that competition between the two goalies."
Hedberg smiled when asked what he was thinking as Kovalchuk broke in one-on-one against Lundqvist.
"I had a good feeling … he came flying and he's been playing tremendous for us," Hedberg said. "He's been an absolute complete player. He's working all of the ice, and scoring all of the big goals."
Kovalchuk, who now has a team-leading seven game-winning goals, had all the confidence in the world on his breakaway.
"I don't hear anything at that point … you just want to score because it's 1-on-1 and the forward has more chances on the breakaway than penalty shot because the goalie can't really focus," Kovalchuk said. "He tries to be ready, but you catch him by surprise."
By the time the second period expired, Kovalchuk had already produced a game-high five shots while the entire Rangers' team had a combined total of 10. Tortorella had his top defensive pairing of Staal and Dan Girardi matched against Kovalchuk most of the night, but it made no difference. In fact, Kovalchuk almost extended the lead 17:07 into the period when his snap shot from between the circles rang off the crossbar.
Despite the goal, Lundqvist, who less than 24 hours earlier was the hero in a 4-3 shootout decision over the Los Angeles Kings at Madison Square Garden, was splendid in defeat with 27 saves as the Devils outshot the Rangers 28-16.
The Rangers almost pulled even 21 seconds into the third when Ryan Callahan's shot from just outside the right post hit the inside left post behind Hedberg, who lost the puck while on his back in the crease. A video review confirmed that the puck did not enter the net.
For all the good he did, Kovalchuk almost cost his team 9:51 into the third when he was sent to the penalty box for high sticking Wojtek Wolski in the Devils zone. But the Devils held the Rangers without a shot during the power play, with defenseman Andy Greene making a pair of blocks.
"The team has good confidence and you could see by the plays we're making … guys don't panic," Lemaire said. "Last year we panicked and I don't see this now. Players are talking on the bench and in my mind, they know what to do."
The Devils held much of the territorial advantage in a fast-paced opening period, outshooting the Rangers 12-5. New York, perhaps a bit weary after Thursday night's victory over the Kings, was bailed out by the superb goaltending of Lundqvist, who is now 21-9-5 in his career against the Devils.
"I thought this was one of the best defensive efforts we've had," Lemaire said. "Our overall game was good. I thought they played well. They maybe lacked some energy because of (playing Thursday night). But they tried and played hard."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale