NEWARK, N.J. (AP)The New Jersey Devils have had such an unexpectly great season some have been wondering when they would hit the wall.
In their biggest game of the season, their best players stood front and center and the only ones hitting the wall were the Carolina Hurricanes.
Jack Hughes stole a puck and scored early and set up two goals by Jesper Bratt to lead the Devils to a 3-0 win Sunday night that pushed New Jersey into a first-place tie with the Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division.
“It’s a big one for us,” said Hughes, who ended a six-game goal drought. “They’re good team over there. So, for us to tie it up, you know, that’s good. And we’re gonna have a big push here the last few games.”
Vitek Vanecek had 32 saves for his third shutout of the season.
New Jersey and Carolina both have 94 points. The Devils have 15 games left in the regular season, one fewer than the Hurricanes.
“This group is really good group,” Vanecek said. “We’re really playing well. The defensemen are really good, the forwards are scoring goals, so the goalie have to make the saves to help them.”
Pyotr Kochetkov made 20 saves for the Hurricanes, who were coming off a 4-0 loss to Vegas on Saturday. The consecutive shutout losses were the first for Carolina since January 2014. The Hurricanes are scoreless in their last eight periods.
Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said he would be more worried about the recent lack of scoring if his team was not getting chances. They tallied 15 goals over three games before totaling only one in the last three.
“It goes like that sometimes,” he said. “And obviously right now we’re in a little stretch where we haven’t been able to find the net.”
Carolina was it’s own worst enemy in this one, as two of New Jersey’s goals came on giveaways.
Hughes came up quickly behind defenseman Calvin de Haan as he handled the puck in his own end, stole it and swooped in on Kochetkov before squeezing a shot between his pads for his 37th goal at 6:44 of the first period.
With the teams playing 4 on 4 minutes just over two minutes later, Hughes led a 2-on-2 break into the Carolina end and found Bratt behind defenseman Brett Pesce. His quick shot beat Kochetkov to the short side.
“We knew this kind of a team if you let off the gas for a couple of minutes they’re going to come back at you,” Bratt said. “This is a really good test for us and we responded very well.”
The final goal came 4:31 into the second period. Hughes knocked down a pass up the ice by the Hurricanes’ goalie and found Bratt on a play he knocked the puck into the net while on the ice for his 27th.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favors by any means,” Canes forward Seth Jarvis said. “But when you can’t put the puck in the net, that’s always a bigger problem. Obviously there’s some you want back, but the ones we didn’t put in are the ones that can hurt a little bit more.”
Vanecek preserved the shutout with a point-blank save on Hurricanes leading goal scorer Sebastian Aho in the second period and an in-close close stop on Jesper Fast in the third.
NOTES: Devils second-year forward Dawson Mercer had his 12-game point streak snapped. … The teams split their four-game season series. … Carolina played without Andrei Svechnikov. He sustained a lower body injury Saturday. … Devils F Erik Haula played in his 600th NHL game.
Hurricanes: Host Winnipeg on Tuesday night.
Devils: Host Tampa Bay on Tuesday night in the opener of a two-game series at home. The other game is Thursday.
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