Kovalchuk helped set up Tallinder's fourth of the year tied the game at 1-1 late in the second period.
However improbable the Devils’ playoff push may be, Ilya Kovalchuk is making it a thrill to watch.
Kovalchuk was electrifying again on Wednesday, breaking a 1-1 tie with 9:50 to go in a 2-1 victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning.
Travis Zajac intercepted Matt Smaby’s clearing attempt along the right wall in the Lightning zone and found Kovalchuk for a one-timer from the slot. He ripped his 22nd past Dwayne Roloson’s stick side, lifting the Devils to their fifth straight home win and an 18-2-2 mark in their last 22 games.
“It was actually a pretty good forecheck and he got the puck from their D and passed it to me, so he made a great play,” said Kovalchuk, who also assisted on Henrik Tallinder’s goal.
Zajac’s timely play completed the Devils’ comeback from a 1-0 second-period deficit.
“Their D tried to chip out and I was just able to intercept it, turned to the middle, saw Kovy coming in, tried to throw it there for him,” Zajac said. “He made a great shot and got a goal.”
Kovalchuk, whose 12-game points streak was snapped Sunday, now has points in 13 of his last 14 contests (8g-8a). It was hardly a surprise that Kovalchuk would come through: he has five game-winners in the Devils’ last 11 contests.
"Kovy's a different player," Jacques Lemaire said. "Kovy can do a lot of things on his own and he's got a knack for scoring and making plays. He's got a touch."
Martin Brodeur made 15 saves to record his second straight win, 15th of the season. He watched from the opposite end of the ice as Kovalchuk did what he does best.
Give a great goal scorer a chance from between the hash marks with a pass coming at about 200 miles an hour, there’s a good chance he’s going to put it in, and he did.- Martin Brodeur on Ilya Kovalchuk's winner
“Give a great goal scorer a chance from between the hash marks with a pass coming at about 200 miles an hour, there’s a good chance he’s going to put it in, and he did,” Brodeur said.
The Devils (28-31-4) moved back within nine points of idle Carolina for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They also leapfrogged Florida into 12th place and prepare to host Pittsburgh on Friday.
“We just have to take care of our business and good things will happen,” Kovalchuk said. “We’ll take one game at a time, practice hard, prepare the best we can and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Brodeur admitted to following the playoff chase. With 19 games remaining, the Devils have one in hand on the Hurricanes.
“We take one step forward, we take one back when we don’t play,” he said. “We wish we could play every day but that’s not the case.”
David Steckel, acquired Monday from Washington for Jason Arnott, made his Devils debut on a line with David Clarkson and former Ohio State teammate Rod Pelley. He had four hits in 13:33 of ice time.
Steckel battles Dominic Moore on a faceoff.
“First period I think I remember about two seconds,” Steckel said. “I think I was trying not to make any mistakes, trying to play within the system. I think once I stopped thinking about thinking, I was all right. Got pucks deep, got in, got a couple of hits. Played more of my game, I thought.”
With his first game out of the way, Steckel can focus on getting better adjusted to the Devils' system.
“It’s kind of tough, you try to play the right system but you don’t actually know until you see yourself,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to watch this game and I’ll have more of an understanding of what I should be and shouldn’t be doing, and we’ll go from here. I thought it was a decent starting point and we got a win tonight, so I’m pretty excited about that.”
Brodeur had a pivotal stop in the scoreless first period, denying Nate Thompson’s shorthanded breakaway at 13:52. Thompson took a pass and raced in alone on Brodeur, who got his catching glove on Thompson’s wrist shot.
Twelve of the Devils’ last 14 games and eight of their last 10 wins have been decided by one goal.
“Today was really a tight-checking game on both sides,” Brodeur said. “We knew after the first period it was going to be who flinched first that was going to make a difference. They made a mistake there and we capitalized to win the game.”
Dominic Moore’s power-play goal opened the scoring in the second. Pavel Kubina faked a slapshot at the right circle, then put a wrister off Moore’s skate and in. The play was reviewed and allowed to stand at 4:41.
The Devils drew even late in the frame. Kovalchuk grabbed a loose puck in his own end and flew into Tampa Bay territory. He fed Mark Fayne for a blast from the right side that was tipped in front by Vladimir Zharkov before Kovalchuk partially fanned on the rebound. The puck kicked out to Tallinder, who ripped a shot through traffic for his fourth of the year with 1:15 remaining in the period.
Strategy shift proved 'D'-cisive Kovalchuk said the Devils changed their approach to generate more offense in the second.
"We started putting pucks behind their D the last seven minutes in the second period, that’s what Jacques told us to do," Kovalchuk said. "We can’t make those fancy plays in the neutral zone, that’s where we got in trouble. We put it deep and started working, forwards started to move their legs and we got a goal."
As much ground as the Devils have made up in points, Kovalchuk isn't using his off-days to follow the other teams in the hunt.
"No, I’m not a big fan of watching hockey on TV," he said. "It’s enough for me, every day I’m at the rink. I watch a movie or different stuff. For sure, we’re looking at standings before the games and we all get stats. It’s important to know where you’re at and what you have to do to be better."
From Ovie to Kovy
Once a teammate of Alex Ovechkin in Washington, Steckel saw some parallels in Kovalchuk's game-winning heroics.
"Identical out there? Pretty much," Steckel said. "We needed a goal, he’s the guy to score one. Sure enough, tonight he came through. It’s amazing, every time those guys touch the puck, you never know what’s going to happen, but you’re usually going to see something special and it happened tonight."
Notes Brian Rolston had several scoring opportunities, none better than his breakaway at 10:30 of the second. A blocked shot sprung Rolston down the left side, but a backchecking Randy Jones got a stick on Rolston’s hands as he went to his backhand, and he never got the shot off. … Devils went 3-1-0 against Tampa Bay to win the season series.
1 - 0 TBL
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 NJD
Delaying Game - Puck over glass
Interference - Goalkeeper