NEWARK, N.J. – Patrik Elias will never forget the 1,000th game of his career.
“I’m always going to remember this,” said Elias, who had a goal, two assists and made a huge defensive play on a penalty kill in the closing minute, leading the Devils to a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers Friday night.
“For me, it was a special night,” said Elias, whose assist on Ilya Kovalchuk’s first of two-third period goals gave the Devils the lead for good at 11:40 of the third period.
“The last two games were up and down for us and we really needed this one to bounce back. I was fortunate to make the play to give us the lead in the third. It’s a nice achievement to have and I’ll take the way we won tonight. I hopefully have a few more years left in me to play more games.”
The win enabled the Devils to snap a two-game losing streak, while the Panthers lost for the second straight night, after falling in overtime to the New York Rangers Thursday night.
The Devils scored three times in the final period for the victory.
Kovalchuk broke a 2-2 tie with 8:20 remaining, when he made a nice rush up the ice and took a return pass from Elias and scored. Kovalchuk added an empty-net goal in the closing minute, his 14th goal of the season.
Before Kovalchuk scored the empty-netter with a minute remaining, the Devils had to kill off a penalty to Zach Parise for delay of game for lifting the puck over the glass.
With Florida in position to get the game-tying goal with two minutes left, Elias made a poke-check of the puck and pushed it out of the Devils’ zone to end the threat.
Elias capped his game when he assisted on Parise’s empty-net goal with 40 seconds left.
“We were flat at times and didn’t look good, but we rebounded with a win,” said Parise, who had a goal and an assist. “We did what we had to do to get the win and we were good enough to win.”
The Devils got a first-period goal from rookie Adam Henrique and a second-period goal from Elias. It was Henrique’s 11th goal of the season and the 14th for Elias. Parise also scored his 14th goal of the season for the Devils.
The Panthers got a first-period goal from Mikael Samuelsson and a second-period goal from Krystofer Barch.
“Every time you play a back-to-back, it’s tough, but you have to find a way to fight through it,” Barch said. “There’s no excuse for letting this one get away late.”
“They’re a really good team,” Panthers defenceman Mike Weaver said. “I thought we played good, but we had to play great to put them away. Every point is so vital now. We can’t be giving games away like that in the third period.”
Jacob Markstrom made 24 saves. Devils goalie Johan Hedberg had 22 saves.
“I personally wasn’t happy with the way I played,” said Hedberg, who won for the 11th time in goal this season. “This was all about Patrik. He’s spent his whole career here and I’m happy for him that we got a win. It was a great day for him.”
The Devils opened the scoring by taking advantage during 4-on-4 play.
Parise took a faceoff in the Florida zone, then skated behind the Panthers goal. He then spotted Henrique in front, whose first attempt was stopped by Markstrom, but Henrique stayed with the play and lifted a backhand past him at 3:53 of the first period.
The Panthers tied the game four minutes later, when Samuelsson, who has missed most of the season with injuries, got his second of the season.
Marcel Goc skated in after making a steal in the New Jersey zone, then made a nice blind pass to Samuelsson trailing the play. Samuelsson fired a wrist shot that beat Hedberg at the 7:33 of the first.
The Devils had a great chance to take the lead in the first period, but Petr Sykora’s slap shot was smothered by Markstrom.
The Devils then regained the lead just 36 seconds into the second period, thanks in part to Dainius Zubrus. Zubrus dug for the puck in the corner, got it out to Mark Fayne, who slid it across to Henrik Tallinder.
Tallinder drew the defence to him, leaving Elias wide open for a slap shot that beat Markstrom’s glove side to give the Devils a 2-1 lead.
The lead didn’t last long. Barch scored his first goal as a member of the Panthers on a 4-on-2 rush, firing a shot through Hedberg’s legs at 2:46 of the second. It was Barch’s first goal since Feb. 24, 2011, when he was a member of the Dallas Stars.
Former Devils forward John Madden, signed as a free agent earlier in the week, had a good opportunity to score in his first game with the Panthers against his former team.
Barch skated in on Hedberg in the early stages of the third period and the goalie made a toe save with his right skate. The rebound came out to a wide-open Madden, but he couldn’t tee up the shot to give the Panthers the lead.
The Devils then broke the tie with 8:20 left, when Kovalchuk started the rush from his own end. He eluded two defenders, then passed to Elias on the wing, then kept skating toward the goal to receive a return pass from Elias. Kovalchuk’s quick wrist shot went past Markstrom for the go-ahead goal.
Notes: Elias became only the third New Jersey player to reach the 1,000-game milestone having only played for the Devils, joining Ken Daneyko (1,283 games) and Martin Brodeur (1,156). … While Elias played in his 1,000th game for the Devils, C Steven Zalewski played in his first with New Jersey and only the fourth appearance in his NHL career. Zalewski, recalled from AHL Albany after C Travis Zajac started to experience pain in his surgically repaired Achilles tendon earlier in the week, had seen action in three prior games with San Jose in 2009 and 2010. … Zajac was scratched for the third straight game with the inflamed Achilles, while D Anton Volchenkov missed his third straight with a lower-body injury. … RW Mattias Tedenby was a healthy scratch. … Henrique’s goal placed him third in the NHL among rookie goal scorers, trailing only Ryan Regent-Hopkins of Edmonton (13) and Matt Read of Philadelphia (12).