The Devils' comeback magic ran out Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
Just one night earlier, they had erased a 3-1 deficit with three goals in the final 3:04 of regulation to cap an incredible 4-3 win over Toronto. But facing the rival New York Rangers, Jersey’s Team pounded pucks on Henrik Lundqvist only to come up short, 3-1.
The Rangers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second period before Dainius Zubrus cut the deficit to 3-1 with 8:49 to go in regulation. That was all the Devils would get, despite outshooting New York, 20-8, in the final frame. Lundqvist finished with 41 saves.
To head coach Jacques Lemaire, the difference in the game was obvious.
“They scored three goals, we scored one,” he said. “They had breaks, we didn’t. It’s not that they didn’t play a good game, they played an excellent game, but I think we had great chances. The goalie was great for them when he had to be. If you look at their goals, it’s breaks.”
His Devils dominated the first and third periods, but hit a snag in the second. Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan struck 56 seconds apart before Chris Drury added a third Ranger goal in a span of 2:39. Lundqvist, who recorded a shutout in the Devils’ 1-0 shootout win at New York on Jan. 12, was the difference on Saturday.
In his first Battle of the Hudson, Ilya Kovalchuk was drawn into an altercation by Sean Avery late in the third. Trailing by two, the Devils didn’t have their newly-acquired sniper on the ice for the final 2:16 of the game.
“That’s hockey. It’s an emotional sport,” Kovalchuk said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Kovalchuk declined to discuss what Avery said to start it. Kovalchuk ended up throwing a couple of gloved punches before both players received double minors for roughing.
“He always talks,” Kovalchuk said. “That’s part of the game. It’s emotions. You go through it.”
In his second game as a Devil, Kovalchuk skated on a line with Zubrus and Patrik Elias, who returned to the lineup after missing 10 games with a concussion. Elias had the lone assist on Zubrus’ tally.
“I don’t know how many assists he has in his career, but he’s a great playmaker,” Kovalchuk said of Elias. “That’s his first game back and we need a couple of games to get chemistry. It’s just really enjoyable to play with those kinds of players.”
In his first game since Jan. 16, Elias saw plenty of positive signs with his new linemate.
“Right from the get-go we had two or three great shifts,” he said. “We just couldn’t score. I thought we kept creating and making plays throughout the game, it just didn’t go in for us.”
Kovalchuk, who had a game-high eight shots in game-high 25:05 of ice time, sounded eager to face Avery and the Rangers again. The Devils are 2-2 against their cross-river foes and will play the final two games of the season series at Prudential Center on March 10 and 25.
“I’m very excited that we have a couple more games against each other,” he said. “That’s real hockey: a lot of energy, a lot of fans, great atmosphere in the building. You really want to win those games.”
The Devils (36-19-2) missed an opportunity in increase their Atlantic Division lead to five points over Pittsburgh, which lost at Montreal on Saturday. Next up for New Jersey, a home-and-home series with the Flyers beginning Monday in Philadelphia.
Following the scoreless first, the Devils had a prime chance to strike first early in the second. With Olli Jokinen already off for hooking, Wade Redden’s delay of game minor for putting the puck over the glass handed New Jersey a 17-second two-man advantage 3:25 into the period. The Devils couldn’t get any rubber to the net on the five-on-three.
“We had good chances on the power play,” Lemaire said. “I think we moved the puck well. We had good chances, and again, the goalie was there on the great chances that we had.”
Gaborik’s power-play goal opened a flurry in the second. Michael Del Zotto passed cross-ice from the left point to Callahan, who drove the net and fed Gaborik in front for his 35th of the year at 7:20. It was the first Ranger goal allowed by the Devils in 117:55 dating back to New Jersey’s 4-2 win at the Garden on Oct. 22.
Callahan made it 2-0 just 56 seconds later, when he knocked the puck away from Kovalchuk in the high slot and tallied his 15th from the top of the left circle. The Rangers went ahead 3-0 on a four-man rush that ended with Matt Gilroy feeding Drury in the slot for his ninth at 9:59.
“We got a little down in the second, but let’s face it, when you get three goals against your team, you’re working, but you’re not as sharp as you could be,” Lemaire said. “You’re still going to work hard, but there’s a bounce here and a bounce there that goes against you, and you drop a bit. Your intensity drops a bit, and that’s what we did in the second. We came back and played hard in the third. All the chances we had, we could have tied it.”
Zubrus got the Devils on the board with his fifth of the season and second in as many games. Elias centered from the right corner, and Zubrus deflected the puck over Lundqvist's right shoulder at 11:11 of the third period.
He now has three goals and three assists in his last five games. Saturday's contest was his seventh since missing 30 with a leg injury.
"I know the score doesn't say that, but I don't think they were that much better than us today," Zubrus said. "(Lundqvist) is a good goalie, I'm not taking anything away from him. He made some good saves, and I thought a few pucks we could have put by him ended up at him."
The Devils' power play, which produced Travis Zajac's tying goal against Toronto on Friday, went 0-for-5 against the Rangers.
• All three members of the Kovalchuk-Zubrus-Elias line were excited for what could be the start of something special. They combined for 13 shots in their first game together.
"As a line, I thought we had some chances," Zubrus said. "I think Patrik had a few chances, I think Ilya had a few chances. Honestly, if we play like that, I think it's really going to pay off."
• Zubrus' goal had the bench energized for a possible comeback. On Friday, Dean McAmmond's tally to make it 3-2 with 3:04 to go sparked the improbable rally against Toronto.
"I thought that goal helped it a little bit to keep our spirits up even more and keep going at him," Zubrus said. "But anything we were creating, he was making saves on. He played well, but I think we had enough scoring chances in this game, and enough chances to win."
• In light of Kovalchuk's run-in with Avery, Lemaire felt trash-talking should be considered unsportsmanlike conduct. "It should be, definitely," the coach said.
• Andrew Peters dropped the gloves with Brandon Prust twice in the first period. He earned the TKO in the first scrap at 3:40, but was dragged down by Prust in the rematch at 12:41. On the second fight, Peters was tagged with a 10-minute misconduct.
Michael Del Zotto
1 - 0 NYR
2 - 0 NYR
3 - 0 NYR
3 - 1 NYR