Ilya Kovalchuk scored for the fourth straight game, breaking up a scoreless game in the second period, and Johan Hedberg made 15 saves to give the streaking New Jersey Devils a 1-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday night.
The Devils have changed from a terrible disappointment to improbable playoff contender in just over a month. New Jersey won its season-high sixth straight and improved to 14-1-2 in its past 17 games to at least enter the postseason discussion.
Even with the surge, the Devils are still double-digit points behind eighth place 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.
Hedberg got the start over Martin Brodeur, activated from the injured list on 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, one night after beating Los Angeles for his 200th NHL win, and stopped 27 shots. He just couldn't shut down Kovalchuk, a familiar failure for goalies around the league.
Kovalchuk has a nine-game point streak, recording seven goals and four assists and fueling 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 New York defenseman tried to keep the puck in but let it get behind him. He then seemed unable to get his skates going to chase Kovalchuk, who streaked alone the other way.
Kovalchuk came in on Lundqvist and fired a shot past him at 8:18. The $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.
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 maneuvering around two Rangers and then being denied by Lundqvist with a close-in drive.
Kovalchuk took a high-sticking penalty in the third period, 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.
He stopped all 12 shots in the first, including a breakaway by Brian Rolston, and was often scrambling back into position to turn aside danger in front of him. The puck was constantly in the New York zone during the first 40 minutes when the Devils dictated tempo and outshot the Rangers 22-10 through two periods.
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. Brodeur looked relaxed as he watched from the bench with a Devils baseball cap on his head.
The closest the Rangers came to scoring was when Ryan Callahan sent a shot off the left post that caromed back out into the crease. The play was briefly reviewed, and the call of no-goal stood.
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 of the AHL. ... New York's previous low in shots this season was 19.