Ilya Kovalchuk sparks the surging Devils to a 5-2 win over the Panthers

NEWARK, N.J. – The New Jersey Devils are playing with the confidence that made them a top team in the NHL over the past decade.

It might have come too late to salvage a playoff spot this season.

Ilya Kovalchuk had a goal and two assists, Jason Arnott scored twice and the resurgent Devils extended their winning streak to four with a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Sunday.

Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias also scored for the Devils, who have picked up points in seven straight games (6-0-1). Their only blip during the surge was a 3-2 overtime loss at Florida on Jan. 15.

The Devils are trying to climb out of a huge hole. They fell to the bottom of the NHL standings with a 10-29-2 record before the hot streak, a slide that cost coach John MacLean his job just before Christmas.

With Jacques Lemaire back behind the bench, New Jersey has turned it around and has recent wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins—all Eastern Conference powers. Even with this run, they are still 20 points away from a playoff berth

“It’s everybody’s fault,” Kovalchuk said. “We have lots of games left. We just have to work hard. You never know. Some of the teams ahead of us might be struggling.”

Shawn Matthias and Marty Reasoner scored for the Panthers, who have dropped four in a row since beating the Devils.

Panthers coach Peter DeBoer can see a difference in the Devils.

“They have tightened things up as a team,” he said. “Their best players, Brodeur and Kovalchuk, are leading the way. We knew coming we were facing a very good team and they showed it.”

New Jersey grabbed a 2-0 lead on first-period goals by Kovalchuk and Arnott. Kovalchuk deflected Andy Greene’s slapper from the right point at 4:20 for his team-leading 14th goal. The Devils’ pressure in the closing seconds paid off as Arnott whipped a backhander past Scott Clemmensen at 19:58.

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That was the last shot Clemmensen faced as Jacob Markstrom, recalled Sunday morning from Rochester (AHL), replaced him to start the second period. Markstrom, a 20-year-old from Sweden, made his NHL debut.

Clemmensen yielded two goals on eight shots.

Matthias got Florida back in the game, snapping a shot past Brodeur at 7:22 of the second, but the Devils got the next two goals in the period, both on the power play.

Rolston scored on a shot from the right point at 12:48 to settle things down for the Devils.

“It was a bit of a change-up,” Rolston said. “It got into the top corner with a good screen. Our power play didn’t look great before that. Sometimes, that’s all it takes and you get confidence.”

Elias beat Markstrom from the bottom of the right circle at 17:19, a five-on-three tally for his fifth goal in the last seven games.

Kovalchuk assisted on both second-period goals.

In the third, Reasoner popped home a rebound at 5:56 to trim the Devils lead to 4-2 before Arnott closed out the scoring with an empty-netter.

“It’s a good feeling in here,” Arnott said. “It certainly is a lot more fun winning than losing. I think Jacques has had a big part in that, turning us around.”

NOTES: The Panthers opened a season-high six-game road trip. … D Colin White (lower body injury), RW Nick Palmieri (upper body) and RW Vladimir Zharkov (illness) all were sidelined for the Devils. New Jersey recalled LW Alexander Vasyunov from Albany of the AHL on Sunday. … The Florida scratches were G Tomas Vokoun, D Dmitry Kulikov (ribs), LW Darcy Hordichuk and LW Chris Higgins (lower body). … The Panthers’ previous four games had gone to overtime or a shootout.