Eight wins in 10 games have the Hurricanes hoping a late playoff push is possible, and they'll look to win a season-high fifth straight Saturday night when they welcome the Atlantic Division-leading Devils to Raleigh.
Not much separated New Jersey (37-20-3) and Carolina during their physical first-round playoff series last spring, but just when the Devils seemed primed to advance, the Hurricanes scored two late Game 7 goals against four-time Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur to escape with a 4-3 win.
While New Jersey is again atop its division, Carolina (23-30-7) has spent much of this season as the Eastern Conference's worst team.
Lately, though, the Devils have stumbled and the Hurricanes have looked nothing like a cellar dweller. Carolina won four in a row to close January, and followed two losses with four more victories, the latest 4-3 in overtime against Buffalo on Thursday.
"It's a long season, and you can never count yourself out until you are mathematically counted out," said goaltender Manny Legace, who's given up seven goals while winning three games during the latest streak. "We struggled through Christmas, but I really do think it was just a jelling period. Now the guys are starting to come together, and we're playing like a team, every single night, for the past month and a half, two months. That's the way we can play."
Jussi Jokinen (12 points) and new captain Eric Staal (11) have led the way offensively during the last 10 games, but despite a surge that's pulled the Hurricanes within 10 points of the eighth playoff spot, general manager Jim Rutherford seems to be building toward the future.
Just five days after dealing defenseman Niclas Wallin to San Jose, Rutherford on Friday sent center Matt Cullen -- the team's fourth-leading scorer with 40 points -- to Ottawa for defenseman Alexandre Picard and a second-round draft pick.
"Alexandre is a good, young defenseman who should become a regular part of (our) blue line," Rutherford said. "...It's not probable, but we can still make the playoffs. We don't want to quit."
Kovalchuk, the Devils' big in-season acquisition, had just two assists in his first four games since being acquired from Atlanta last week, but Friday finally showed why he's the NHL's top goal-scorer since 2001. His third-period goal broke a 2-all tie against Nashville, propelling New Jersey to a 5-2 win.
"It's always exciting when you score," said Kovalchuk, who has 31 career goals versus Carolina -- tied for his most against any opponent. "That was a big goal for us, to take the lead. It's a great win for us."
That was just the Devils' fourth win in 15 games since Jan. 14, a slump that has seen their Atlantic lead over Pittsburgh slip to two points. New Jersey last won consecutive games on Jan. 9-12.
It's taken both meetings with the Hurricanes this season in Newark, and Brodeur has given up the same number of goals as he allowed in the last 1:20 of Game 7. He stopped 26 shots in a 2-0 win on Oct. 17, then made 21 saves in a 4-2 victory on Dec. 9.
Brodeur is 6-1-1 with a 1.38 goals-against average in his last eight regular-season games against Carolina.