NEWARK, N.J. – The surging New Jersey Devils still have a long way to go to really enter the Eastern Conference playoff race, but Ilya Kovalchuk and a lockdown defensive system are making it interesting.
Kovalchuk scored for the fourth straight game while Johan Hedberg made 15 saves to give the streaking Devils a 1-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday night.
New Jersey won its season-high sixth straight and improved to 14-1-2 in its past 17 games to enter the post-season discussion. Eight of their last nine games have been decided by one goal (8-0-1).
“We are believing,” forward Jason Arnott said. “We know it’s a longshot and it’s still far away but belief is everything. We have a lot of confidence going in here.”
Despite their winning ways, the Devils are still 12 points behind eighth-place Carolina and will need to jump over five teams to make the playoffs with only 24 games remaining. They trailed the seventh-place Rangers by 31 points on Jan. 8, but are now 14 points behind.
New York is two points ahead of Carolina.
Hedberg got the start over Martin Brodeur, activated from the injured list Friday, and earned his second shutout of the season and 16th in the NHL. The 15 shots were a season-low for New York.
Henrik Lundqvist was sharp for the Rangers, stopping 27 shots a night after beating Los Angeles for his 200th NHL win. He just couldn’t shut down Kovalchuk.
“They played really well and they have been,” Lundqvist said. “They’re in the race. It’s unbelievable, but they’re in the race.”
Kovalchuk has a nine-game points streak, recording seven goals and four assists and fuelling New Jersey’s success. He scored the goal that seemed to be coming for quite some time as the Devils controlled the puck and kept the Rangers pinned in their zone.
But the play that produced the goal originated in the New Jersey end as Kovalchuk capitalized on a miscue at the right point by Marc Staal. The defenceman tried to keep the puck in but let it get behind him. He then seemed unable to get his skates going to chase Kovalchuk on a breakaway.
“I saw it coming, and it just jumped over my stick, and I couldn’t get a skate on it,” Staal said.
Kovalchuk came in on Lundqvist and fired a shot past him at 8:18 of the second. The US$100-million man then raced to the glass beside the Devils bench and emphatically thrust his arms up several times to pump up the already exuberant crowd.
“We just go out there every game and look still one game at a time,” Kovalchuk said of the Devils (24-30-4). “We’re looking to get to .500 as soon as we can and see what happens.”
Throughout the night, Kovalchuk showed all the talent that led to the Devils trading for him and giving him his megadeal. He nearly added goals later in the second period, first ringing a shot off the right post after moving around two Rangers and then being denied by Lundqvist with a close-in drive.
Kovalchuk took a high-sticking penalty in the third, but the Rangers failed to record a shot during the power play.
Lundqvist was the sole reason they didn’t fall behind earlier and weren’t behind by more than a goal heading into the third.
“That fortunate bounce went to the wrong player,” Lundqvist said.
He stopped all 12 shots in the first, including a breakaway by Brian Rolston, and often turned aside danger in front of him. In the first 40 minutes, the Devils dictated tempo and outshot the Rangers 22-10.
New Jersey didn’t seem to miss a beat with Hedberg in net, even with Brodeur back on the active roster following a knee injury. The crowd didn’t mind Hedberg, either, loudly chanting “Moose” every time the backup made a save—difficult or easy.
“This is as good a defensive effort as I ever had in the NHL,” Hedberg said.
Brodeur looked relaxed as he watched from the bench wearing a Devils baseball cap. It’s undecided who will start in goal Saturday at Carolina.
“My partner is the best goaltender to every play the game, so if they want to play him I can’t argue with that,” Hedberg said.
The closest the Rangers came to scoring was when Ryan Callahan sent a shot off the left post that bounced back out into the crease in the third. The play was briefly reviewed.
NOTES—Devils D Anton Volchenkov returned from a three-game suspension for elbowing and replaced Mark Fraser in the lineup. … The Rangers sent C Kris Newbury to Connecticut (AHL). … New York’s previous low in shots this season was 19.