Coming off victories against a pair of the league's best teams in their last two games, the New Jersey Devils can ill afford a letdown Tuesday night when they host the Carolina Hurricanes at the Prudential Center.
However, those wins against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning only guaranteed that the Devils (39-28-8) remain in the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot, barely holding off the red-hot Florida Panthers, who sit just one point behind New Jersey.
"We've certainly held tough with some of the best teams and the hardest buildings to play in," Devils forward Blake Coleman told northjersey.com. "If that doesn't give you confidence going into these last eight games, or whatever it is, nothing will. Now, we need to keep carrying it forward."
New Jersey surrendered only four goals in beating the Penguins and Lightning, two of the NHL's top-scoring clubs. A committed effort from "a group of self-starters", as Devils coach John Hynes called his players, combined with solid play from goaltender Keith Kinkaid paved the way for the two victories, as well as the recent run in which New Jersey has five victories in seven games.
Kinkaid, who started the season as the backup to Cory Schneider, has helped keep the Devils' playoff hopes alive while Schneider missed extensive time due to injury and then struggled when healthy. Kinkaid has a career-high 21 wins this season, while Schneider is without a victory since Dec. 27, losing his last 11 decisions.
"Keith has been a difference maker," Hynes said of Kinkaid, who will start for the seventh time in the last eight games on Tuesday. "He's really come in and played well. He's been a really important factor in us remaining competitive in the playoff race."
Kinkaid and his teammates must sustain their recent high level of play against the Hurricanes (34-31-11), who are barely breathing in the playoff race, seven points behind the Devils with only six games to play. However, the Hurricanes carry some momentum of their own into Tuesday's clash in Newark, winning three straight games and four of their last five.
Carolina finished off a home-and-home sweep of the Ottawa Senators Monday night with a 4-1 home-ice victory which followed Saturday's 5-2 win north of the border. The Hurricanes drew inspiration from a pair of rookies recently-recalled from the minor leagues in their most recent victory.
Warren Foegele made his NHL debut on Monday and notched his first career goal and assist, while recording five hits. Valentin Zykov netted his third goal -- and fifth point -- in his fourth game for Carolina in the win, as well.
"I thought I'd do a tight turn and just shoot it on net. ... It was fortunate enough to go in," Foegele said of his goal. "I heard the crowd make the noise, and I looked in the back of the net. A pretty surreal moment for myself. Something I'll remember forever."
Like Foegele, Zykov scored a goal in his NHL debut on March 9, 2017, one of two games he played last year. This season, he was held scoreless after his recall on March 20, but followed up with a two-goal game, a two-assist game and another goal on Monday.
"It's exciting. You're happy for them. They've worked hard all their life, and all of a sudden they realize the dream," Carolina coach Bill Peters told reporters. "The dream is to make the National Hockey League, and then they score. They gave us good energy (Monday) night."
Tuesday marks the fourth and final meeting between these Metropolitan Division rivals this season. The Devils won the first two games, 5-2 on Feb. 15 and 3-2 in overtime three days later. Carolina rebounded in the last get together for a 3-1 victory of its own.