NEWARK, N.J. (AP)—The fight for the top spot in the Eastern Conference is now a three-way battle.
Mike Mottau, Jay Pandolfo, Johnny Oduya and Zach Parise also scored for the Devils, while Martin Brodeur made 21 saves. New Jersey, 6-1-2 in the last nine games, improved to 73 points. They are tied with Ottawa and Montreal for the top spot in the conference and moved two points ahead of Pittsburgh atop the Atlantic Division.
“You have three teams tied up there,” Brodeur said. “For us, Pittsburgh is only two points away and other teams are going to challenge us. We just want to move forward and not get overwhelmed by the situation.”
Jeff Hamilton scored for the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes, who had won three straight. Carolina is 4-2 in the last six games, with the two losses blowouts in New Jersey. The Devils beat the Hurricanes 6-1 in New Jersey on Feb. 9.
Zajac was outstanding in the first period as the Devils took a 2-0 lead.
Using defenseman Casey Borer as a screen, Zajac opened the scoring at 2:02, beating John Grahame from the high slot. Grahame, who relieved Cam Ward and got the win in the Hurricanes’ 5-4 comeback win over the Panthers on Saturday, was making his first start since Dec. 31.
“It’s always tough when the other team gets the first goal,” Grahame said. “I was ready to play. It’s a save I needed to come up with, to give the team some confidence. They came out with some pressure and we needed to play a pretty solid game. We weren’t even close.”
With New Jersey on a power play, Mottau knocked in the rebound following Zajac’s close shot at 7:18. Zajac almost scored later in the period but his shot hit the post. He had three of the Devils 11 shots over the first 20 minutes.
“It’s much easier playing with the lead,” Zajac said. “We’ve been able too keep some good teams off the scoreboard. We want to win and succeed. We’ve been playing great lately, getting leads and finishing off games.”
In the second, New Jersey increased the lead to 3-0 as Pandolfo completed a 3-on-1 break at 1:08. Hamilton got Carolina on the scoreboard at 6:17, beating Brodeur with a wrist shot before Oduya restored the Devils’ three-goal advantage at 9:38.
The Devils defended the lead for most of the third period, limiting the Hurricanes to six shots.
“You just can’t get down against that team,” Hamilton said. “They will shut you down. That’s why they are always one of the best teams in the East.”
Parise closed the scoring with his team-leading 23rd goal with 2.2 seconds remaining.
The last time Carolina won four straight was Dec. 16-26, 2006. … The Hurricanes are depleted by illness and injury. Carolina, already missing captain Rod Brind’Amour with a knee injury Thursday, scratched Ray Whitney (groin) and Erik Cole (flu), removing three of the club’s top five scorers from the lineup. The Hurricanes placed Brind’Amour on injured reserve Monday and called up center Joe Jensen from Albany (AHL). … The Devils are 8-1 in the last nine against the Hurricanes.