Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias blew the game open with goals early in the third period as the Devils won for the 13th time in 16 games and moved within 12 points of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Johan Hedberg made 25 saves for New Jersey, which was 27 points below the postseason cutoff line heading into its game against Tampa Bay on Jan. 9. The Devils are 13th in the East.
Sergei Samsonov scored for eighth-place Carolina, which opened and closed its five-game road trip (1-3-1) with losses at New Jersey. Tuomo Ruutu scored with 2.8 seconds to play to make it 3-2.
Kovalchuk, who had scored the winning goal in the Devils’ previous two games, put New Jersey ahead for good in this one with a great effort.
Kovalchuk took a pass along the goal line from Nick Palmieri, skated out to the left point and then turned and skated back into the left circle. Once he got to the top of the circle, he hit the brakes to shake off Joe Corvo, waited for the defenseman to get back into the play and then used him as a screen on a shot that beat Cam Ward to the glove side.
Kovalchuk then played to the crowd, going to a knee and rubbing the ice as the crowd chanted ‘Kovy, Kovy, Kovy’ for the $100 million man they loved to boo when things were bad earlier this season.
Hedberg started his fourth straight game in place of Martin Brodeur, who is sidelined with a sprained right knee. He came up big to keep New Jersey ahead the rest of the period, stopping Jerome Samson twice in close and Erik Cole once.
The Swede also got a break when Eric Staal missed the net in the closing seconds of the period with a shot while all alone from between the circles.
Rolston and Elias gave the Devils a three-goal lead in the opening 1:59 of the final period.
After Hedberg stopped a shot from the left circle by Joni Pitkanen, the Devils counterattacked. Defenseman Anssi Salmela set up a chance in close by Elias. Ward made the save, but Rolston got the rebound between the circles and backhanded the puck into an open corner at 34 seconds.
Elias got his 14th of the season less than 90 seconds later, taking a cross-ice pass from Rolston at the Hurricanes blue line, skating around a defender and beating Ward with a backhander in close.
Hedberg’s bid for his second shutout of the season ended at 8:17 when Jiri Tlusty gained control of the puck after a faceoff to the left of Hedberg, skated behind the net and found Samsonov for a tap-in from the crease.
The goal gave the Hurricanes some momentum but Hedberg stopped 14 of 16 shots in the final 20 minutes.
Notes: The Hurricanes play four straight and six of seven at home. ... Ward has started 17 straight games. ... Brodeur might practice with the team on Thursday for the first time since he was injured on Feb. 6. ... Jussi Jokinen returned to the Carolina lineup after missing six games with a groin injury.