Kovalchuk’s heroics continued on Friday, when he struck with 24.9 seconds left in overtime to clinch a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Travis Zajac drew a hooking call on Zbynek Michalek in the extra session to give the Devils their first power play of the night.
On the man advantage, Brian Rolston blasted the puck wide from the right point. Patrik Elias had a quick shot off the carom that drew Brent Johnson out of the crease.
Elias brought the loose puck around the net and fed Kovalchuk at the left circle. He ripped his 23rd of the season into the open side for his sixth game-winning goal in the last 12 games as the Devils won their third straight by a count of 2-1.
In what has become a familiar scene during the Devils’ dream run, Kovalchuk was mobbed by teammates after notching another big goal. Could he recall this many game-winners in the span of a month?
“I don’t know,” Kovalchuk said. “You should check on that.”
The sellout crowd of 17,625 was treated to a gem. New Jersey improved to 19-2-2 in its last 23 and extended its home winning streak to six in a row.
We weren’t at our best tonight, but we’re just finding a way to win. You can’t say enough about Kovy scoring as many game-winners as he’s scored for us. It was a fun one to win.- Brian Rolston
With Carolina's loss in Chicago and the Rangers' win in Ottawa, the Hurricanes fell back into eighth place. The Devils (29-31-4) sit nine points out of the final playoff spot with 18 games to go. They visit Long Island on Sunday.
“What a great game, great goaltending,” Rolston said. “We weren’t at our best tonight, but we’re just finding a way to win. You can’t say enough about Kovy scoring as many game-winners as he’s scored for us. It was a fun one to win.”
Elias was just hoping to find someone open on the 4-on-3.
“I knew the D was kind of throwing himself there and I just looked up to see if I could get it to Kovy there or to somebody open,” Elias said. “I got it over the stick with the backhand there.”
The Devils were ready to cash in.
“We work a lot on that 4-on-3 in practice,” Kovalchuk said. “We know exactly what we’re doing. Rollie got a couple of great shots. He could’ve ended that game, then Patty got a great chance and finally we scored. We’re confident when we’ve got those kinds of chances.”
Kovalchuk acknowledes the crowd after being announced the game's First Star. GETTY IMAGES
Martin Brodeur was spectacular, making 10 of his 25 saves in the third period. He has won three straight starts to improve to 16-19-2.
“Especially in the third period, he made some unbelievable saves,” Kovalchuk said. “That’s nice when both your goalies play with a lot of confidence and they give you the feeling up front that you can take sometimes a little more risk than you’re used to.”
Thirteen of the Devils’ last 15 games have been decided by one goal, including nine of their last 11 wins. Brodeur credited the team’s defensive play for keeping games close.
“We’ve definitely changed a lot of things in our zone,” Brodeur said. “I think the support of players, the support of having guys closer together and supporting each other so when there’s breakdowns, there’s people closer to jump on loose pucks and be able to get in shooting lanes and blocking shots. It makes a big difference in the way that Jacques really changed the way the positioning is in our zone."
Jacques Lemaire saw his team overcome a sluggish start for their second straight win over the Penguins, who have been without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
"I felt that we started so bad, we had to be better," Lemaire said. "The first period, I was happy it was still a tie game. Second we played better and I knew in the third we would play better."
Zajac was involved in one of the game’s early highlights, dropping the gloves with Kris Letang in the first period. Both received five for fighting, but Letang also received a game misconduct for not having his jersey tied down.
In the second, Zajac’s first goal in 11 games broke the scoreless tie. As Nick Palmieri battled Jordan Staal for possession at the Devils’ blue line, Zajac swooped in. He carried into Pittsburgh territory, split Matt Niskanen and Michalek and flipped a backhander past Johnson for his 10th of the year at 3:43.
"It was more bouncing than anything and I just tried to throw one on net," Zajac said. "Didn’t think it would really have a chance and you never know. Just lucky."
Just over two minutes later, a Kovalchuk turnover gift-wrapped Tyler Kennedy’s tying goal for Pittsburgh. His pass attempt for Zajac went off the linesman’s skates to Kennedy, who beat Brodeur from the right circle at 5:58
“I personally didn’t feel very good,” Kovalchuk said. “It didn’t seem like we had the jump that we usually have. But that crowd kept us in the game. They were cheering the whole game, they were very active and loud. It’s great to be in those buildings.”
Kovalchuk's winner more than made up for his second-period miscue. His teammates have been awed.
"We understand that Kovy’s scoring some huge goals for us and we’re happy for him and not surprised by it, really," Rolston said. "Our run is something special, there’s no question about that. But we don’t think about it too much. You move on to the next game. What Kovy’s doing is fantastic and we’re happy for him."
Lemaire wants more from the power play
Though the Devils won the game on their lone power play, Lemaire said after the game he wants to see them improve with the man advantage. That would help ignite an offense that has been limited to two goals or less in five straight games and eight of its last 10.
Fortunately, the Devils have been impenetrable on defense. They've given up one goal or less in eight of their last 10.
"The power play has to be better. The forecheck has to be better," Lemaire said. "We’re getting two goals, the other team’s getting one goal. So we don’t have the offense, they don’t have the offense and it’s been a few games like that."
Teams everywhere are playing airtight defense.
"I’ve been saying this, the teams are playing good," he said. "It was tough for our guys to create chances tonight. I felt they did a tremendous job in their end because there’s not a lot. You make one mistake and that’s how you get a chance. Besides that, there’s nothing."
During Friday's power play, Craig Adams blocked a Kovalchuk shot before Staal blocked a Rolston bomb. The play had turned to a scramble in front when Kovalchuk ended it.
"The other team didn’t know what we were doing, that’s for sure, because we didn’t know," Lemaire said.
Iron Man Rolston got a kick pass from Dainius Zubrus in the third and fired a shot off the cross bar with 4:06 left in regulation.
"It wasn’t one of those that hit the cross bar and go up, it was like [straight] and back," Rolston said. "I had him beat for sure."
Friday night fight Zajac's fight started with a hit by Letang.
"I just kind of got hit awkwardly, I don’t know if I was even expecting it or if it was late," Zajac said. "Then we were kind of shoving and it just kind of escalated after that. I think I just wasn’t expecting it. I was kind of heading back and I think he ended up finishing a check. I just wasn’t ready for it and it caught me a little off-guard so I pushed him, he pushed me back and it happened after that."
Said Zajac: "I wanted to get up and just go, but I want to be a player that can protect myself out there."
Father knows best David Clarkson and wife Brittany had their first child on Friday, welcoming daughter McKinnley. He was headed back to the hospital immediately after the game.
"Yeah, it was exciting," Clarkson said. "The biggest thing I’ve ever had happen to me in my life and the team’s still winning and it’s a great feeling."
He was excused from Friday's morning skate but came back to play the game.
"Pretty emotional when you see that, and it’s over with and I’m going to go hold that baby til she goes to bed," he said.
Notes Adam Mair played in career game No. 599. … Pittsburgh’s last regulation win came on Feb. 4. … This was a different Pittsburgh team than the one the Devils last faced on Jan. 20. Since that meeting, which New Jersey won 2-0, the Penguins acquired Alex Kovalev from Ottawa, and James Neal and Matt Niskanen from Dallas.
1 - 0 NJD
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 NJD