NEWARK, N.J. – New Jersey Devils rookie Nick Palmieri gave the puck to Ilya Kovalchuk along the Carolina goal-line early in the second period of a scoreless game and then got a chance to watch the US$100-million Russian superstar put on a show.
Kovalchuk skated out to the point, reversed direction, went back down to the left circle, hit the brakes to lose defenceman Joe Corvo and then let loose a shot that beat Cam Ward to the glove side.
The goal led the streaking Devils to a 3-2 victory over the Hurricanes on Wednesday night.
“That’s what he does with the puck that no one else can do,” Palmieri said after New Jersey won its fifth straight and for the 13th time in 16 games. “My job was to get in front of the net and set a screen, but obviously there is no rebound on a shot like that.”
Sergei Samsonov, who scored Carolina’s first goal, has seen Kovalchuk make plays like that many times.
“You give him room and he is going to make you look stupid,” Samsonov said. “He’s been doing it his whole career.”
The goal was the sixth in seven games for Kovalchuk, whose game has slowly returned to superstar levels since Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean as coach in late December.
He has even become a fan favourite again. After scoring his 20th of the season, he went down to a knee and rubbed the ice as the crowd chanted ‘Kovy, Kovy, Kovy’ for the man they loved to boo when things were bad earlier this season.
“That’s what happens when the team struggles,” Kovalchuk said of his dismal play earlier this season. “This game is not an individual sport.
“It’s all about team effort. When everybody is struggling, it’s tough to find your best effort. But now we’re winning and we’re feeling good about ourselves.”
The Devils, who are trying to make the playoffs for a 14th consecutive season, have a lot to feel good about. They were 27 points out of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference before starting their current 13-1-2 run Jan. 9. Now they are within 12 points of eighth-place Carolina after beating the Hurricanes for the second time in a little more than a week.
New Jersey, which is still 13th in the East, put this one away on goals from Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias early in the third and a 25-save performance from Johan Hedberg.
“This is the way we’re going to have to do it,” Hedberg said. “It’s a lot more fun to win than losing.
“We just have to keep working as hard as we are now and win the next one.”
Samsonov’s goal cut the Devils’ lead to 3-1 at 8:17 of the third. Tuomo Ruutu closed the scoring with 2.8 seconds to play for Carolina, which opened and closed its five-game road trip (1-3-1) with losses at New Jersey.
“I don’t know, it was a lack of emotion,” Ruutu said. “I thought we only played the last 10 minutes, after we scored that first goal.
“These are big games. For the first two and half periods we were just trying to get through the game and you’re not going to win that way.”
Starting his fourth straight game in place of the injured Martin Brodeur (sprained right knee), Hedberg kept the Devils ahead 1-0 after Kovalchuk’s goal, stopping Jerome Samson twice in close and Erik Cole once.
The Swede also got a break when Eric Staal missed the net in the closing seconds of the period with a shot while all alone from between the circles.
Rolston and Elias gave the Devils a three-goal lead in the opening 1:59 of the final period.
After Hedberg stopped a shot from the left circle by Joni Pitkanen, the Devils counterattacked. Defenceman Anssi Salmela set up a chance in close by Elias. Ward made the save, but Rolston got the rebound between the circles and backhanded the puck into an open corner at 34 seconds.
Elias scored his 14th of the season less than 90 seconds later, taking a cross-ice pass from Rolston at the Hurricanes blue-line, skating around a defender and beating Ward with a backhand shot.
“That was huge,” Rolston said. “We hit two plays. You have to give credit to our defenceman for bringing it up the ice and giving us a 3-on-2 both times.
“Patty makes a great move on the second one and I just got the rebound on Patty’s shot. Those are huge goals to start a period.”
Hedberg’s bid for his second shutout of the season ended at 8:17 when Jiri Tlusty gained control of the puck after a faceoff to the left of Hedberg, skated behind the net and found Samsonov for a tap-in from the crease.
The goal gave the Hurricanes some momentum but Hedberg stopped 14-of-16 shots in the final 20 minutes.
NOTES—The Hurricanes play four straight and six of seven at home. … Ward has started 17 straight games. … Brodeur might practise with the team Thursday for the first time since he was injured Feb. 6. … Jussi Jokinen returned to the Carolina lineup after missing six games with a groin injury.