Devils achieve first winning streak since Kovalchuk's arrival with 3-1 win over Penguins.
It felt as though the playoffs had come early, with the Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins colliding in a game that showcased postseason intensity Friday night at the Rock.
In the end, the Devils hit all the right notes to remain perfect this season against the defending Stanley Cup champions. Andy Greene broke a 1-1 tie at 2:06 of the third period and Ilya Kovalchuk added an insurance marker and two assists to lead the Devils to a 3-1 win.
Greene, who also had an assist, stepped into a Kovalchuk rebound from the top of the right circle and ripped his sixth of the season over the catching glove of Marc-Andre Fleury.
Kovalchuk’s 35th of the year – a wrister from inside the blue line – gave the Devils a two-goal cushion midway through the third. Kovalchuk was stopped by Fleury on a penalty shot late in the second period. Patrik Elias potted New Jersey's other goal.
The contest between Eastern Conference contenders was physical and high-flying. Referees dished out a combined 73 penalty minutes, including 49 in a heated second period.
But the Devils (40-23-3) picked up where they left off in Wednesday’s 6-3 defeat of the New York Rangers, posting consecutive wins for the first time since Jan. 12. They closed to within two points of Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division lead and will aim for their first-three game winning streak since December when they visit Long Island on Saturday.
“That’s what we needed, to bring that intensity to the games,” said captain Jamie Langenbrunner. “It had really been lacking from us: the battle, the intensity, the will. I think we’ve done a good job for the last two (games) of showing those things. The results are starting to come because of that.”
New Jersey improved to 5-0 against the Penguins and could become the first team to sweep the season series when it concludes at Prudential Center next Wednesday. They have allowed one goal to Pittsburgh in their last three meetings, outscoring them 17-3 this season.
“We have a lot of respect for them,” said Martin Brodeur, who finished with 34 saves to capture his 37th victory. “We know that if we don’t play well, we’re going to have big problems. It brings the best out of us when you’re playing scared a bit with that respect that you have for a team that you play against. We really took it to them.”
Brodeur flashed his right pad to stop Chris Kunitz from the doorstep with 1:07 to go in the second and robbed Jordan Staal from the doorstep with three minutes left in regulation.
Head coach Jacques Lemaire couldn't explain his club's dominance of the Penguins, who entered with a 4-0-1 mark in their previous five outings.
"There's no explanation for that except that you need a little luck and I think we've had some luck at different times," he said. "When you do, you build up some confidence and guys play their best game."
Langenbrunner offered his own theory.
"We have a focus playing against these guys that I wish we would have every game," the captain said. "We understand how dangerous they are, and I think we play accordingly. We have intensity, we're not taking shifts off and when you play that way, things are going to happen."
Elias opened the scoring 1:43 into the contest. Greene slammed the puck wide from the right point, but the endboard carom came out in front where Elias flipped home his 12th of the season.
The Penguins responded 42 seconds later to tie it on Sidney Crosby’s 45th. The Devils turned the puck over at the Pittsburgh blue line before Kunitz turned up ice to set up Crosby’s five-hole wrister from the right circle at 2:25.
Things went from a simmer to a boil in the second period. Martin Skoula was driven hard into boards by Craig Adams as he touched up an icing. Skoula, who spent 33 games with the Penguins this season, was cut above his right eye and needed three stitches. Adams received a major and a game misconduct, but the Devils misfired on the ensuing five-minute power play.
Later in the second, Dainius Zubrus tangled with Kris Letang in front of the Pittsburgh net, and each received minors for roughing. Rob Niedermayer clashed with Evgeni Malkin in the final five minutes of the period, and the scrum that followed resulted in Colin White and Ruslan Fedotenko trading 10-minute misconducts.
Kovalchuk’s penalty shot came with the score tied, 1-1, with 1:49 left in the second. Letang was whistled for tripping Kovalchuk on a breakaway, and the Devils’ left winger was awarded the team’s first penalty shot since an unsuccessful attempt by Langenbrunner at Tampa Bay on Oct. 31.
Kovalchuk skated down the left side, snapping a wrist shot from the left hash marks that was smothered by Fleury, who finished with 29 saves.
“I just tried to shoot low glove, and it hit his pad,” Kovalchuk said. “He made a good play.”
Kovalchuk believes the goaltender has the advantage in penalty shot situations versus game play.
"When you have a breakaway, the goalie has less time to focus," he said. "Sometimes it happens really quick and you have a little more chance to score. When it's a penalty shot, he's very focused on you to make a save. It's a 50-50 chance."
Niedermayer and Matt Cooke dropped the gloves off the opening draw in the third. Niedermayer said Cooke believed he had been hit with an elbow late in the second. Langenbrunner wound up on the Pittsburgh bench after coming together with Kunitz and falling into the open door 5:56 into the third.
The Devils penalty kill was perfect in five tries, and fought off a Pittsburgh power play with 5:27 to go in the game.
With their 13th consecutive 40-win season, the Devils tied the Montreal Canadiens (1970-71 through 1982-83) for the most all-time. … David Clarkson played in his 200th career game. … Devils were outshot 13-8 in the first period and 15-5 in the third. They pounded Fleury in the second by a 19-7 margin. Kovalchuk fired a game-high seven shots.
1 - 0 NJD
1 - 1 Tie