The Devils celebrate Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
Jacques Lemaire may choose not to embrace the spoiler role, but his Devils are making life difficult for teams in the playoff picture.
They knocked off another top-eight seed on Thursday with a 3-2 victory, their first in four tries against the rival New York Rangers.
Protecting a one-goal lead late in regulation, the Devils escaped Madison Square Garden with two points after Brandon Dubinsky’s slot redirection of a Dan Girardi pass hit the left post with 0.9 seconds left in the third period.
Lemaire, who indicated Thursday he was more concerned about his team playing well than playing spoiler, endured some tense moments in the dying seconds.
But his group kept its composure to kill four Rangers power plays in the third period and hold on with a resilient effort.
“That was not easy,” Lemaire said. “We had a good start, I think we played well. At a time, we started to get penalties, which didn’t help because the same guys that play the power play kill the penalties. You just add minutes and they get tired. They came back, they got a couple of goals, but I felt that the guys didn’t drop as a team. Guys stayed poised and knew what they had to do.
“We got a break at the end, but it’s part of the game.”
It's always nice to beat the Rangers, especially with the history these clubs have between each other.- Henrik Tallinder
The Devils (18-30-3) won their second straight and have soared to an 8-1-1 mark in the second half. Five of those victories have come against teams holding postseason spots.
They have tied the Islanders with 39 points, but moved out of last overall, surpassing the Oilers, who have 38. The Devils have more wins than the Islanders in the same number of games.
The Devils slipped below the Isles after losing to them on Dec. 23 – Lemaire's first game back behind the bench. They've finally reversed the trend.
“If we want to do well or if we’re doing well, we’ll start catching up to teams and putting them behind us,” said Martin Brodeur, who made 25 saves for his 12th win. “It’s going to be a long process, but hopefully we’ll keep what’s going on right now going.”
He continued: “It’ll be nice to get to the locker room and, for now anyway, not see our name in the 15th spot (in the conference).”
Brodeur tried wrapping the puck around the boards in the final seconds of regulation. Girardi crept in from the right point to intercept and set up the Rangers’ last 6-on-5 gasp.
Kovalchuk leads the Devils with 15 goals and has 5 goals, 5 assists in his last 10 games.
“I didn’t want another faceoff especially with two, three seconds left or three, four seconds that I thought was left when I got the puck,” Brodeur said. “I just threw it in the corner; I didn’t expect one of their D to be that quickly on the puck in the corner, especially with no time left. Usually everybody wants to crowd the net, not hang out in the corner. It worked out well for him. They made a good play, a good tip and got a little lucky.”
Brodeur saw the Devils get the early jump when Ilya Kovalchuk scored on their first shot of the game. Goals by Dainius Zubrus and Brian Rolston built the New Jersey lead to 3-0, chasing Henrik Lundqvist before the second intermission.
Lundqvist, who entered with a 21-7-5 career mark against the Devils, was relieved by Martin Biron with 4:56 to go in the second after allowing three goals on 12 shots. Biron stopped six of six.
The Rangers would chip away on goals by Ryan Callahan and Vinny Prospal, who returned from knee surgery to make his season debut. Prospal scored on a two-man advantage early in the third period when his shot from the bottom of the right circle went in off of Henrik Tallinder.
Zubrus had a goal and an assist and his trio with Rolston and Patrik Elias continued its torrid pace. Rolston delivered the knockout blow on Lundqvist and extended his points streak to seven games (4 goals, 5 assists). Elias set him up, stretching his own points streak to seven (3 goals, 5 assists).
Together, the Rolston-Elias-Zubrus line combined for four points on two goals and two assists.
“As a line we played really well,” said Zubrus, who notched the game-winner versus Ottawa on Tuesday. “Patrik’s been real good, same thing with Rollie. Those guys are playing real well, and I’m glad I got to be with them on the same line.”
Kovalchuk quieted the Garden crowd early, giving the Devils a 1-0 lead just 1:04 into the contest.
He took a drop pass from Zubrus inside the Rangers blue line, and skated to the right dot for a laser off the right post and under the cross bar for his team-leading 15th.
“We were talking about it, get a good start, and get ourselves a lead and we did it,” Kovalchuk said. “I think it was a great team effort, and Marty played unbelievable again.”
Asked about beating the Rangers for the first time this season, Kovalchuk said, “It’s another two points and we want to win every game right now. It’s just one game at a time and tomorrow it’s a new day.”
The Devils dodged a bullet late in the first, just seconds after killing off Tim Sestito’s roughing minor. With less than 10 seconds to go, Dubinsky put a rebound off the cross bar from the left of the crease.
Zubrus staked the Devils to a 2-0 lead in the second period with his ninth. Tallinder jumped up in the neutral zone to carry into Rangers territory and fed Zubrus at the top of the left circle for a slapshot that squeezed between Lundqvist’s catching glove and left pad at 8:01.
“It’s always a good rivalry, it’s always good games,” Zubrus said of facing the Rangers. “I thought this game was no different. They play well at home. We played a pretty good two periods, and we let them come back into the game.”
Elias intercepted a Mats Zuccarello turnover in the Rangers zone to set up Rolston’s seventh of the season, a rocket from above the right circle that made it 3-0 at 15:04.
“It feels good to produce and help the team win,” Rolston said. “It’s huge and gives me confidence. Jacques has shown a lot of confidence in me since I got waived and I came back. He’s played me a lot and you have to produce with that if you get that opportunity and I feel I have. Hopefully I can continue doing that.”
Callahan put the Rangers on the board with a slapper from the right circle that found space over Brodeur's left shoulder at 16:25.
Out of last place for the time being, the Devils just want to keep this going.
Said Tallinder: “We just want to keep building what we’re doing right now, which is playing good hockey, solid hockey and trying to win games."
• David Clarkson fought Sean Avery in the second period, landing a right as they lost their balance and fell to the ice.
• Friday is the one-year anniversary of the Kovalchuk trade with Atlanta: “That’s good,” Kovalchuk said. “It went by quick. Hopefully, next year I’m going to get more goals than this year.”
• Brodeur played in his 1,029th complete game, which is as many total appearances as Patrick Roy had in his career.