NEWARK, N.J. – While Ilya Kovalchuk refuses to take credit for the New Jersey Devils’ surge since the all-star break, his teammates can see that the forward has elevated his game.
Kovalchuk had a goal and two assists, and the Devils extended their winning streak to four games with a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.
Anton Volchenkov, Dainius Zubrus, Zach Parise and David Clarkson also scored for the Devils, who remained perfect since the all-star break while equalling their season-best win streak. Kovalchuk has been the key to the surge with three goals and seven assists in the four games.
“He’s a heart and soul guy,” Clarkson said. “He flies out there. He’s always been a guy who finds the net and makes plays. He’s a positive guy in the room, whether we’re winning or losing. It’s great to see him doing well, and that’s why we’re doing well.”
When asked about his play, Kovalchuk put the focus squarely on the team.
“We’re all playing good,” Kovalchuk said. “Individually, you can’t do much anymore because everybody watches videos and everybody plays a system. You need the five guys on the ice to be on the same page, to play the same way, to be successful.”
But it never hurts to have a star player set the tone.
“Your top players need to be your top players,” said Martin Brodeur who made 28 saves and got an assist on Clarkson’s empty-net goal in the closing seconds. “We ask every guy to chip in every night. He’s doing a lot of things, like killing penalties. He has a lot more responsibility now, and he’s taken it with a positive spin.”
The win moved New Jersey within one point of fifth-place Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference.
Matt Niskanen and Evgeni Malkin scored for the Penguins who had won nine of 10. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was yanked early in the second period after surrendering three goals, ending his nine-game winning streak.
Kovalchuk powered the Devils to a 2-0 lead in the first period.
Cruising all alone in the slot, Kovalchuk whipped a feed from Patrik Elias past Fleury for his team-leading 22nd goal at 2:21.
Kovalchuk was the playmaker on the second tally at 9:33, sending a return pass to Volchenkov in the slot. It was the first goal in 104 games for the defenceman, and his first with the Devils.
Malkin had two quality chances for the Penguins, including one in the closing seconds of the period as Brodeur denied him with a spinning save.
New Jersey increased the lead to 3-0 at 2:28 in the second, getting a short-handed tally from Zubrus that was set up by a terrific effort by Kovalchuk.
The sequence started when Kovalchuk blocked a shot from Paul Martin at the point. Those two battled down the ice for possession with Kovalchuk winning and driving to the net only to be denied by Fleury. Zubrus knocked in the rebound as the Devils scored their league-leading 13th short-handed goal.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma pulled Fleury at that point, sending in Brent Johnson.
“It was a tough one to give up,” Fleury said. “We were trying to come back in the game. There was a still a lot of time to play and the guys battled back.”
The move helped stem the Devils’ momentum and the Penguins cashed in the remaining power play when Niskanen scored at 3:02.
“We gave them a couple of goals and we were playing from behind right from the start,” Niskanen said. “Brodeur is tough to beat. He was pretty good today and that team in general is tough to play against when they have the lead.”
Parise restored the three-goal lead for the Devils with his 20th of the season at 11:33.
In the third, Brodeur maintained the three-goal margin with a stellar stop on James Neal’s shot from the right circle.
Pittsburgh turned up the pressure after Volchenkov was whistled for high-sticking midway through the period, and it paid off when Malkin got his 29th, a power-play goal at 11:43.
NOTES: C Adam Henrique returned for the Devils after missing the last three games with a groin injury. To clear roster space, New Jersey returned D Peter Harrold to Albany of the AHL. … D Adam Larsson (sore back) and C Ryan Carter (hand injury) sat out for New Jersey while RW Cam Janssen was a healthy scratch. … D Ben Lovejoy and RW Colin McDonald were healthy scratches for Pittsburgh while RW Arron Asham missed a ninth straight game with a concussion.