(AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes’ five-game road trip began with a loss to New Jersey. They’re hoping it doesn’t end with another one.

With a slim lead for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, Carolina looks to close its final multi-game trip of the season on a positive note Wednesday night against a Devils club seeking its fifth straight win.

Carolina (27-22-8) lost its fourth straight at the Prudential Center last Tuesday, falling 3-2 in overtime as Mattias Tedenby beat Cam Ward 2:42 into the extra period.

That was the first of three straight one-goal defeats to open the trip, but the Hurricanes earned a key 3-2 victory over Atlanta on Sunday to stop their three-game slide. Erik Cole scored the winner with 1:19 left and Ward stopped 41 shots as Carolina took a two-point lead over the Thrashers for eighth.

The Hurricanes, making their final visit of the season to New Jersey, are in the thick of a crowded battle for a playoff spot. After Wednesday, Carolina will play 16 of its final 24 at home, and each of its last eight road contests will come in single-game trips.

The Hurricanes, though, will have to start playing better for the favorable schedule to matter. They’ve gone 2-5-2 in their last nine.

“There’s a lot of hockey still to be played. It’s going to be a tough race to the finish,” said Ward, who has a 3.08 goals-against average while starting the last 16 games.

While New Jersey (22-30-4) seems to have little chance of extending its 13-season streak of playoff appearances, it has been making a strong push to the finish line. The Devils were last in the NHL going into the new year, but have gone 12-1-2 in their last 15.

New Jersey will be trying to win five in a row for the first time since Dec. 12-21, 2009.

“We’re all playing better,” forward Ilya Kovalchuk said after scoring his second consecutive game winner in a 2-1 victory over San Jose on Friday. “It seems like we never stop battling. That’s character. That’s when you feel comfortable to play confident with the puck and without it and we get the bounces. We didn’t feel that in the first 30 games, that’s for sure.”

Kovalchuk has turned his season around since Jacques Lemaire took over as coach Dec. 23, scoring 11 of his 19 goals. Kovalchuk has scored nine times in the last 14 games.

“I’ve seen it before,” said New Jersey goaltender Johan Hedberg, who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta. “This is the fifth year I’ve been with him. He’s an elite player in the world. Like everybody else, he had a slower start than he wanted. You can tell he’s stepped it up a couple of notches.”

So has Hedberg, going 3-0-0 with a 1.28 goals-against average while starting the last three games in place of the injured Martin Brodeur.

Brodeur started skating again Tuesday after spraining his right knee Feb. 6, but he’s not ready to return.

Hedberg made 20 saves against Carolina last week. He turned away 15 of 18 shots after Brodeur yielded three goals in the opening eight minutes of a 6-3 loss to the Hurricanes on Jan. 1.

Carolina center Jeff Skinner has two goals in each of the teams’ two meetings this season. The clubs close out their season series Saturday.

Updated February 15, 2011
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