New Jersey (24-30-4) at Carolina (28-23-8)

By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO, STATS Writer Saturday, Feb 19, 2011 Puck Drop: 7:00 pm EST Sat Feb 19, 2011

Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) has the New Jersey Devils gaining significant ground on the Carolina Hurricanes and the rest of the Eastern Conference’s playoff contenders. The return of Martin Brodeur(notes) could bring them closer still.

Kovalchuk and the hard-charging Devils look to beat the Hurricanes for the third time in less than two weeks Saturday night.

New Jersey (24-30-4) was a whopping 27 points out of playoff position after losing 2-1 at Philadelphia on Jan. 8. An incredible 14-1-2 stretch since has brought the Devils from the Eastern Conference cellar to the outskirts of postseason contention.

They’ve cut the deficit to 12 points behind eighth-place Carolina (28-23-8) with 24 games to play. Kovalchuk has 11 goals and eight assists during the 17-game hot streak, including seven goals and four assists during a season-high nine-game point streak.

“We are believing,” center Jason Arnott(notes) said. “We know it’s a long shot and it’s still far away but belief is everything. We have a lot of confidence going in here.”

Kovalchuk kept that confidence high by scoring on a breakaway in a 1-0 win over the New York Rangers on Friday, giving him a goal in four consecutive games and extending New Jersey’s longest winning streak of the season to six.

The right wing has five goals and nine assists in his last nine meetings with the Hurricanes. He scored against them in a 3-2 win Wednesday, after getting an assist in a 3-2 overtime victory Feb. 8.

Those two games were both in New Jersey. The Devils have dropped five of their last six visits to RBC Center, including a 6-3 defeat Jan. 1 that saw Brodeur get pulled after 8 minutes for allowing three goals on seven shots.

Returning from a sprained right knee may give Brodeur a chance to redeem himself. He’s missed five games with the injury, but acted as Johan Hedberg’s(notes) backup Friday.

Hedberg made 16 saves against the Rangers to win his fifth consecutive start with a 1.17 goals-against average in that stretch. Brodeur was 8-1-1 with a 1.92 GAA in his last 10 starts prior to getting hurt.

“My partner is the best goaltender to ever play the game, so if they want to play him I can’t argue with that,” said Hedberg, who allowed four goals on 49 shots while winning both matchups with Carolina this month.

The Hurricanes are only 3-4-2 in their last nine games, but extended their lead over Buffalo and Atlanta for the final playoff spot in the East to four points Friday, when Erik Cole(notes) scored with 3:03 remaining to secure a 3-2 win over conference-leading Philadelphia.

“We’re trying to prepare ourselves for the ups and downs of what playoff hockey is like,” Cole said. “Momentum can change within a shift to a 5-minute span, a 10-minute span, a period, a game, whatever. You just have to be able to have a short memory and just continue playing the same way.”

Cole has three goals and one assist over his last four games, but didn’t get a point versus the Devils on Wednesday, extending his drought against them to seven contests.

Rookie center Jeff Skinner(notes) had two goals in each of his first two matchups with New Jersey, but failed to score in Wednesday’s loss.

New Jersey has allowed two goals or fewer in all six games of its winning streak.

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Saturday, Feb 19