RALEIGH — The New Jersey Devils were missing key players and had played Friday night, but it didn’t seem to matter.
The Devils had more than enough left Saturday to beat the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Devils won 3-1 at PNC Arena with some bruising play, good goaltending by Cory Schneider and strong penalty killing, keeping their playoff hopes alive while shoving the Canes a step closer to elimination.
“You can’t let up this time of year or in this league,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “You’ve got to push all the time.
“They played last night. A lot of their top players played a lot of minutes. They come in here and outwork us, and that can’t happen.”
New Jersey (34-28-16) pulled within one point of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who hold the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 85 points. The Canes (34-33-11) remained six points behind the Blue Jackets and now have just four games left in the season.
Travis Zajac’s goal at six minutes, 34 seconds of the second period pushed the Devils ahead 2-1. It came less than two minutes after the Canes’ Jeff Skinner had tied the score 1-1 with his 31st of the season, tying his career high set as a rookie.
Dainius Zubrus had the Devils’ first goal, late in the first period after a Carolina turnover in the neutral zone, and added an empty netter in the final minute to seal it.
“I don’t think we had our legs,” Skinner said. “If you don’t skate you’re not going to be able to create much speed. They shut everything down and we really couldn’t generate much.”
Not on the power play. The Devils lead the NHL in penalty killing and showed why Saturday, denying the Canes on all four power plays.
Devils forward Tuomo Ruutu, making his return to PNC Arena, assisted on Zajac’s goal. Ruutu, who was in the starting lineup Saturday, was traded by Carolina to New Jersey on March 5 in the deal that brought forward Andrei Loktionov to the Canes.
New Jersey was without forwards Adam Henrique, Patrik Elias and Jacob Josefson, who were injured Friday in the Devils’ hard-fought 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals in Newark, N.J. But the Canes, Muller said, didn’t get a complete effort from its roster.
“We didn’t have everyone on the page tonight, and when you’re playing tight games like this, playoff mentality, you’re not going to get the result,” Muller said.
Asked why all the players were not “on the page,” Muller said, “I don’t know. Did you ask the players?”
“There’s no excuses,” Muller added. “You win or you lose and you get out of it what you put into it. We had some guys who really put everything into it and some guys who didn’t.”
Skinner’s shot in the second period first appeared to ring off the crossbar. Play continued and New Jersey’s Michael Ryder had an attempt go off the post.
On the next whistle to stop play, a video review of Skinner’s shot revealed the puck did cross the goal line.
The Devils quickly answered, on another unusual play. The puck banged the post, landed behind goalie Anton Khudobin, took a wicked bounce and spun back across the goal line.
In the final moments of the second period, the Canes’ Riley Nash was in position to tie it. But Nash’s shortside shot from the doorstep was stopped by Schneider, who had 26 saves.
Zubrus backhanded a shot past Khudobin late in the first period to give the Devils a 1-0 lead after one. Zubrus scored after Michael Ryder forced a turnover in the neutral zone as the Canes’ Alex Semin tried to pass to Loktionov.
“They pushed the pace on us,” Canes defenseman Jay Harrison. “They played more desperate than we did. That’s the bottom line.”
NOTE: The Carolina Hurricanes will hold the third annual Alumni Fantasy Game at 3 p.m. Sunday at PNC Arena. Admission and parking are free.
Eleven Hurricanes alumni are scheduled to participate. Ron Francis will captain the red team, which also includes Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley, Robert Kron, Steve Rice and Tripp Tracy. Rod Brind’Amour will captain the white team, featuring Bates Battaglia, Jesse Boulerice, Aaron Ward and Shane Willis.
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip