NEWARK, N.J. – When Atlanta steamrolled the New Jersey Devils 7-1 on Dec. 18, former Thrashers Johan Hedberg and Ilya Kovalchuk were left reeling.
“It was a very emotional game for me and it left a very sour taste in my mouth,” said Hedberg, who replaced all-star goalie Martin Brodeur in the second period of that lopsided game. “That game was an embarrassment.”
“The last time we played them, it wasn’t pretty,” Kovalchuk added.
Both former Thrashers came up big Friday to help the Devils avenge that lopsided loss.
Hedberg made 28 saves in a rare start and Kovalchuk sealed the game with a late goal, giving the Devils a 3-1 victory that snapped a six-game losing streak and gave Jacques Lemaire his first victory since replacing John MacLean behind the bench.
Lemaire lost his first three games after taking over for the fired MacLean on Dec. 23.
“It’s like my first win ever,” Lemaire said.
Rookie defenceman Mark Fayne scored his second NHL goal and captain Jamie Langenbrunner had his first in more than a month for New Jersey.
“We hit rock bottom and it was an embarrassment to lose so many games in a row,” Langenbrunner said. “But we’ve done a better job of late. We did some good things (Wednesday night) against the Rangers (in a 3-1 loss). We knew the breaks had to go our way for once. We got some chances and made the most of them.”
Dustin Byfuglien had his 15th goal for Atlanta. He leads NHL defenceman in goals and points (40).
Hedberg has five victories in 12 starts this season, while Martin Brodeur was five in 24 starts.
“I’m doing whatever I can to help this team, whether it’s playing or watching,” said Hedberg, who signed with New Jersey as a free agent over the summer after playing with Atlanta. “To come back and beat them after the way they beat us makes this better. I think this will give everyone a boost. We haven’t had a lot of breaks lately, so this was big to get the win.”
Atlanta, coming off a shootout loss to Boston at home Thursday night, lost for the fifth time in six games.
Byfuglien cut it to 2-1 with 7:46 left, but Kovalchuk beat Chris Mason on a breakaway 1:26 later to restore the two-goal margin.
“This wasn’t the best of years,” Kovalchuk said. “This year is over. We can turn the page and start a new year and if we do, we can turn things around. We needed this win. Six in a row was just too much.”
Fayne scored at 1:18 of the first period on the Devils’ second shot of the game, firing a blast from the left point that sailed high to the right corner. His first goal was Dec. 15 against Phoenix in the Devils’ last victory.
Arnott assisted on the goal, and also set up Langenbrunner’s goal at 1:01 of the second.
Atlanta defenceman Freddy Meyer tried to skate with the puck behind his own net, but Arnott chased Meyer down, stole the puck, then slid it in front to Langenbrunner, who alertly slapped the puck past Mason. It was Langenbrunner’s fourth goal of the season and first since Nov. 10 against Buffalo.
The Thrashers had a tough time in the second period. With their lone power-play opportunity, they squandered one chance when two Thrashers collided with each other and another when Alexander Burmistrov lost his balance with an open shot and skated past the puck, enabling the Devils to take the two-goal advantage into the final period. New Jersey is 7-0-1 when leading after two periods.
Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay knew that the Devils would be a different team under Lemaire.
“You can see they had a game plan coming in and they stuck to it,” Ramsay said. “They got ahead and they make things difficult when they get ahead like that. They’re a good checking team and they have some big people who took advantage of us. We were playing our ninth game in 15 days and we’re losing bodies and losing energy. The end result isn’t what we wanted, but our kids battled all night. The effort was there.”
NOTES: When the Devils scored first, it was only the eighth time in the last 28 games that Atlanta failed to score first. … Atlanta entered play as the NHL’s third-best scoring team, averaging 3.1 goals. The Devils are the league’s lowest-scoring team with 64 goals. .. Veteran forward Brian Rolston was a healthy scratch for the Devils. He was placed on re-entry waivers Wednesday and wasn’t claimed by another NHL team.