NEWARK, N.J. – The New Jersey Devils have used a team effort to solve their defensive problems. Ilya Kovalchuk is taking care of the other end of the ice.
Kovalchuk scored his fifth winning goal in the last 11 games and the Devils continued their amazing playoff push with a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.
“He’s got a knack for scoring and making plays,” Devils coach Jacques Lemaire about his US$100 million forward. “He’s got a touch. That’s why he is making so much money.”
Martin Brodeur had 15 saves and Henrik Tallinder also scored as the Devils won for the 18th time in 22 games (18-2-2) and moved past Florida into 12th place in the Eastern Conference, nine points behind eighth-place Carolina.
“We’re moving forward,” Brodeur said. “We’re getting points. We’re getting wins. It was a big bounceback game for us against a team that just beat us. Sometimes that stays in your head but we played extremely well all night long.”
Dominic Moore scored for Tampa Bay, which had a three-game winning streak snapped, a run that included a win over New Jersey last week.
Dwayne Roloson made 25 saves for the Lightning, but he didn’t have a chance on either Devils’ goals.
“We lost a patience game,” Lighting coach Guy Boucher said. “We won a patience game back home and lost one here. It was who was going to make the last mistake and we did. We turned it over and they capitalized on us.”
Kovalchuk’s 22nd of the season and eighth winner was set up by a great steal by Travis Zajac deep in the Tampa Bay zone. He intercepted a pass by defenceman Matt Smaby in the right circle and found Kovalchuk between the circles for a snap shot that he launched falling to the ice.
“You give a great goal scorer a chance between the hash marks with a pass coming to him at 20 miles per hour, there’s a good chance he’s going to put it in,” Brodeur said. “He’s been going really well. He’s a big reason for our turnaround. One of the biggest problems we had was offensively. We’ve solved the way we play in our own zone. We don’t need to score a lot of goals. You need timely goals.”
Once Kovalchuk put the puck in the net, he got down on a knee and pumped his fist, something that he has done with greater frequency since New Jersey started turning its season around after Lemaire took over as coach before Christmas.
“It was a great play by Zajac, to get the puck away from the guy and to pass it to me,” Kovalchuk said. “The puck was right in front of me and I just wanted to get a shot. I saw the empty corner and the puck was right in front of me. I took some quick steps and put it on net.”
After steaking the pass, Zajac said the only think on his mind was making a pass somewhere near his Russian linemate.
“He’s a guy who can shoot from just about any position,” Zajac said. “If it’s a little bit in front or behind him, he can adapt and get a good shot off like he did there.”
New Jersey tied it at 1 late in the second period on Tallinder’s fourth goal of the season.
Defenceman Mark Fayne missed the net with a shot from the right point, but Vladimir Zharkov and Kovalchuk worked the puck to Tallinder above the left faceoff circle. The defenceman hesitated a split second before beating Roloson with a shot.
“It deflected off one of our guys trying to do the right thing, getting in the shot lane and it ricocheted,” Roloson said. “The second one, you get a guy like him shooting, and it’s tough.”
Brodeur, playing in his second straight game since returning from a knee injury, stopped a rebound attempt by Dana Tyrell and an attempt in close by Vincent Lecavalier early in the third period to keep the game tied.
Moore had given the Lightning a 1-0 early in the period with a somewhat lucky power-play goal. Defenceman Pavel Kubina centred the puck from the right circle and it went off Moore’s skate into an open net.
The goal was reviewed but replays clearly showed it was not deliberately kicked into the net.
There were only nine shots in the first period and only two good scoring chances, a short-handed breakaway by Nate Thompson of Tampa Bay and a power-play shot by Jacob Josefson of New Jersey.
NOTES: Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay has his nine-game scoring streak stopped (4 goals, 9 assists). … David Steckel, acquired Monday in the deal that sent Jason Arnott to Washington, wore Arnott’s No. 25. However, he centred the fourth line between Rod Pelley and David Clarkson. Josefson centred Arnott’s old line with Vladimir Zharkov and Mattias Tedenby on the wings. … Roloson started his fourth straight game for Tampa Bay. … New Jersey’s Zach Parise, who had surgery on his right knee Nov. 2, has been cleared to skate lightly. … New Jersey won the season series 3-1.
Note to readers: CORRECTS typo in “patience” in para 8.