NEWARK, N.J. -- Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said there are two areas that have given his team a renewed sense of confidence in recent weeks.
"I think we're starting to find ways to win, and staying with the game plan," Muller said. "Last season, when teams would push harder, we'd get away from it. But we're buying in this season."
The Hurricanes had every excuse to check out Tuesday in front of 17,625 fans at Prudential Center when they were down to five defensemen following a second-period injury to Joni Pitkanen and the New Jersey Devils were beginning to put the pedal to the metal after pulling into a 2-2 tie.
It never happened -- Jiri Tlusty would score a pair of third-period goals, including an empty-netter, and Cam Ward finished with 26 saves to lead the Hurricanes to a 4-2 victory. The loss snapped the Devils' five-game winning streak.
Carolina closed out its season-high six-game road trip with a 4-1-1 mark atop the Southeast Division, third in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes return home Thursday to play the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It was our longest trip of the year, so guys are extremely excited to go home and get to sleep in their own beds," Ward said. "And we can do so happy because it was a very successful trip for us."
What did Muller learn about his team on this six-game journey?
"I think we learned how to come together and win games," he said. "I think it's the little things. Cam Ward playing three games in four nights … to walk in here and get that win is a huge push for him to getting back to become one of the elite goalies. Our top guys are leading, and our role guys are finding a spot."
Not bad for a team that sat in ninth place in the East at the start of the week.
Tlusty, who scored twice in a 6-4 victory over the New York Islanders on Monday, gave Carolina a 3-2 lead 7:25 into the third period on a power-play goal. After collecting a pass from Eric Staal at the right post, Tlusty directed a shot over Brodeur's glove hand on the short side.
"I tried to go high and it kind of nicked off some of their guys and went in," Tlusty said. "We always wanted to go hard entering the third period and that was key. We were talking about it in the dressing room before the third. Their goal [to tie the game] didn't slow us down."
The helper by Staal on Tlusty's goal extended his point-scoring streak to 10 games (eight goals, eight assists). The Devils were pushing hard over the final five minutes but a tripping penalty on Andy Greene at 17:23 forced the Devils to play shorthanded down the stretch.
Goalie Martin Brodeur (21 saves) was pulled for an extra attacker with 1:07 remaining to give each team five skaters. Stephen Gionta would get two golden opportunities but was denied by Ward with under a minute left before Tlusty hit an empty net with 33.6 seconds left.
"We've got to realize that when teams come to play us, they're picking up their game," Devils captain Bryce Salvador said. "When you're at the top, everyone is looking at you and everyone is gunning for you. We've got to come out and expect to see their best.
"That's the great thing about this League. Anyone can beat anyone, especially if you're not ready and don't respect your opponent. Chances are, you're going to get bitten."
The win was even more impressive when you consider Carolina was forced to play without minute-muncher Pitkanen, who was sidelined the entire third period with a lower-body injury.
"I don't know [his] status," Muller said after the game. "He's playing great hockey so it was a big loss. He covers a lot of ice time, and eats us minutes, and is a valued part of our back group there with the young guys on the blue line."
Ward said his team discussed playing the third without Pitkanen.
"We made a note that we really had to buckle down and try as best as you could to keep things simple," he said. "We didn't want to force any plays because bodies were limited, and there was some wear and tear from the lengthy road trip. We kept it simple after we calmed down early in the third and were able to hold on."
Carolina denied New Jersey on two power-play opportunities in the final period while holding a 3-2 lead.
The Devils pulled into a 2-2 tie 1:34 into the third when Ryan Carter scored an unassisted goal right in front of Ward for his second of the season. Steve Bernier stripped the puck from Justin Faulk, who was attempting to lug the disk up ice off the transition, and Carter picked it up before lofting a backhand attempt over Ward's right pad.
"Give them credit, they came hard but we stuck to our plan and it didn't slow us down," Tlusty said. "We got a chance on the power play and buried it. That was a good moment for us."
Patrick Dwyer gave the Hurricanes their first lead of the game, 2-1, 18:29 into the second when he deflected home a shot from the right point by Jay Harrison. The defenseman took a pass from Faulk and ripped a shot that nicked Dwyer in front. Brodeur had no chance on the shot, screened by Dwyer and Devils defenseman Adam Larsson.
"Even though we didn't have a great start, we started to come on in the second and when we tied it up, we had an opportunity to take this to overtime or even it in regulation, but our penalty-kill let us down and we got a bad bounce," Salvador said.
The Hurricanes tied the game, 1-1, on a power-play goal by Jussi Jokinen just 1:36 into the second.
New Jersey's David Clarkson broke in 1-on-1 against Ward after taking a feed from Adam Henrique at the 12:40 mark, but the Carolina keeper was in perfect position to make one of his eight saves in the period.
"We had a hard time handling their D pinching, so they kept a lot of pucks in," Brodeur said. "A little bit like we like to do on teams."
Brodeur was sharp in the first, turning aside 10 shots.
"We really controlled the play in first but Marty made some big saves, and fortunately, we were able to get some traffic in front of him to make it harder on him," Ward said.
Despite playing less than 24 hours earlier against the Islanders, the Hurricanes dictated much of the action in the opening 10 minutes before the Devils finally began generating some chances on Ward. When Jokinen was whistled for hooking at 15:35, the Devils' power play went to work.
At 24 seconds into the man advantage, Ilya Kovalchuk ripped a shot from the left point that blew by Ward high on the short side. The puck went in and out of the cage with such force, the goal light never came on as the judge likely believed the puck had hit the crossbar.
After an additional three minutes of action, a stoppage of play finally allowed the officials to review Kovalchuk's shot and confirm his blast had indeed hit the back iron just underneath the crossbar before popping out.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
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