Ilya Kovalchuk’s time in New Jersey began with as thrilling an ending as you’ll ever see.
Trailing 3-2 late in regulation, the Devils struck twice in the final minute of regulation to pull off a stunning 4-3 triumph over the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.
Kovalchuk had two assists in his Devils debut, and set up Travis Zajac’s six-on-four power-play goal with 43.7 seconds left. Jay Pandolfo buried a Mike Mottau rebound from the bottom of the left circle for the winner with 18.9 seconds left.
“It’s great to play in front of that kind of crowd,” said the newest Devil. “They supported us all game long and nobody left the building. They kept believing in us.”
A two-time 50-goal scorer, Kovalchuk admitted to being a little nervous on his first shift.
“But then guys were supporting me really well and I almost felt like I’d played here before,” he said.
Even Jacques Lemaire couldn’t explain what had just happened. His club, which had slumped to eight losses in its previous 11 games, entered the third period trailing 3-1 after allowing three straight goals in the second.
They would pull off a comeback to remember.
It turned on Dean McAmmond’s tally with 3:04 to go. Vladimir Zharkov gained the Toronto zone, and dished to McAmmond cutting through the slot. He backhanded his sixth of the season past Jonas Gustavsson to bring the Devils within a goal at 3-2.
“The guys on the bench were really excited about that goal,” Lemaire said. “I heard some of the guys say, ‘Hey we can come back. That was the first time in the game that I saw they were excited.”
Dainius Zubrus, who scored the Devils’ first goal, was on the ice with Zajac and Zach Parise when he drew a critical penalty on Alexei Ponikarovsky with 2:22 left. Zubrus was hauled down as he collected Parise’s centering feed in the slot, allowing the New Jersey power play to go to work.
Kovalchuk, stationed at the point, played catch with McAmmond at the right boards before McAmmond threaded a cross-ice pass to Zajac at the left circle. Zajac ripped a one-timer for his 17th of the season to tie it, 3-3.
Martin Brodeur had come off the ice just six seconds earlier for the extra skater. He finished with 17 saves and tied Jonathan Quick with a League-leading 33 wins.
“You get a goal and you just feel like, ‘Hey, maybe we can somehow battle and tie it up,’ and we were able to,” said Zajac, who has six points in his last four games (3g-3a). “We get the win, so it was pretty exciting.”
Kovalchuk was acquired Thursday in a blockbuster that sent Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick to Atlanta. The teams also flipped second-round picks. His offensive impact was evident on the tying marker.
“They have to play Kovalchuk just because of his shot, and be aware of him, so it kind of opened up a lane for me there to get a good shot away,” Zajac said. He added, “I hit it pretty good. I don’t know if I could do that again.”
New Jersey didn’t stop there. Moments later, Langenbrunner kept the puck alive in the Toronto zone, and shoveled the puck over for Mottau’s shot from the right point. Pandolfo crashed the net for his first goal in 16 games.
“You’re always still trying to win, but 3-1 is sometimes tough,” Pandolfo said. “But we found a way.”
The win will have Jersey’s Team riding high for Saturday’s rivalry matchup with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Having snapped a two-game losing streak, they’ll try to secure consecutive victories for the first time since Jan. 12, when they beat the Rangers in a 1-0 shootout at MSG.
“It’s going to give us some excitement going into (Saturday’s) game,” Zajac said. “We know we didn’t play well today. Did we deserve the two points? Maybe not, but we found a way to win. When you’re a good team, there’s nights when you have to do that.”
Kovalchuk recorded his first point as a Devil with an assist on Zubrus’ fourth of the year to open the scoring. Toronto responded with three straight goals in the second period, including two on the power play, to go ahead, 3-1.
Langenbrunner knocked down Gustavsson’s clearing attempt at the right boards, and Kovalchuk sent the loose puck toward the slot. Freddy Sjostrom intercepted, but Zubrus dove to flip a backhander inside the left post for his at 13:20 of the opening frame.
Kovalchuk, the Devils’ leading scorer with 60 points (31g-29a), has four points (1g-3a) in as many games.
Zubrus, who centered Kovalchuk and Langenbrunner for much of the night, has continued to put up points since returning to the lineup on Jan. 26. He missed 30 games with a leg injury, but has come on strong with two goals and three assists in his last four contests.
“The goals haven’t been easy to come by,” Zubrus said. “It was kind of a crazy fashion, but I don’t remember a game like that. It’s exciting. Some nice plays, and I was right in front of the net by myself, where they had to take a penalty. There were some plays, but the first two periods we weren’t doing that much, so we still need to get better.”
Toronto scored three times in the second period to erase the 1-0 deficit and take a two-goal lead. With Rob Niedermayer in the box for slashing. Phil Kessel set up Tomas Kaberle’s one-timer from the point that deflected off Pandolfo and flew over Brodeur’s glove at 3:39.
Lee Stempniak’s unassisted power-play marker gave the Leafs the lead. Kovalchuk was off for interference when Stempniak forced a turnover against Mottau at the left boards. He arced cross-ice to the right circle for a slapshot inside the left post at 10:23.
The Leafs made it 3-1 on Rickard Wallin’s first of the year. Kessel stripped the puck from Langenbrunner as he tried to exit the Devils’ zone, and Wallin beat Brodeur from the slot at 16:09.
Lemaire said referees missed a two many men call against Toronto on their third goal.
“Sometimes they don’t see,” he said. “I hoped they saw it.”
"He was fine," Lemaire said of Kovalchuk's first game. "He's a guy that can't do it on his own all the time. He will sometimes, but he needs hel. Like any other hockey player, you can't play this game alone. You need guys around you that will move the puck to you at the right time. When you're in good position, you need that puck and someone has to give it to you. Otherwise, it's a tough game."
The coach suggested the best fit for Kovalchuk could be with Parise and Zajac.
"Because they hold onto the puck well, they see the ice well, they can get away from people and make a pass," he said. "You need a lot of skills to do this."
• Kovalchuk said it wasn't his best game. Besides the two assists, he had one shot in 21:43 of ice time. But after days of speculation over where he might wind up, he sounded ready to settle in as a Devil.
"It's not easy," he said. "But when you come to this kind of organization, they have three Stanley Cups, they definitely know how to win."
Not known for his defense, Kovalchuk indicated a commitment this season to a two-way game.
"I'm always trying to do that," he said. "This year, I was a plus-one when I left Atlanta, and that's a big change for me. I think in my career, I'm a minus-95 or something. Hopefully that's going to change."
• Anssi Salmela, who returned to New Jersey in the Kovalchuk deal, was back in a Devils uniform for the first time since the deadline deal that shipped him to Atlanta last season.
"He played well," Lemaire said. "He was not a liability. He moved the puck fine, he just needs to get used to the type of game we're playing and the players that he's playing with."
• Patrick Davis was assigned to Lowell on Friday. He had one goal in eight appearances with New Jersey this season.