NEWARK, N.J. – For the first time in a while, Ilya Kovalchuk wasn’t at his best.
It didn’t stop the US$100 million man from scoring yet another winning goal for the New Jersey Devils.
Kovalchuk scored on a power play at 4:35 of overtime and Martin Brodeur made 25 saves Friday as the Devils continued their remarkable playoff push with a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Marty was really good,” Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. “Not as much Kovy. Kovy scored the big goal. That’s what he is getting paid for, but tonight I know he can play better. He can play better.”
The goal was the second straight winner for Kovalchuk, his sixth in the last 12 games and his ninth of the season.
“I’m not doing anything differently,” said Kovalchuk, whose giveaway set up the Penguins’ goal by Tyler Kennedy. “I just knew we would get our chance in the end. I gave the puck away on the goal in the second period and I felt like I had to do something to get it back. I think the team is finding me in key situations.
“I think every hockey player wants to be in that kind of situation in overtime, getting a power play. I’m just glad I got the chance to end it.”
Kovalchuk’s 23rd goal of the season gave New Jersey its 19th win in 23 games (19-2-2) and handed the injury ravaged Penguins their eighth loss in 10 games (2-5-3).
New Jersey is nine points behind eighth-place Carolina.
“We’re playing our game right now,” said Travis Zajac, who got the Devils’ other goal. “The games are getting tougher and closer, because we’re not getting the same scoring chances that we got when we started the run. So we have to make the most of the chances we’re getting. We’re still behind the pack right now and we have to keep fighting.”
The winner came with the Devils on their only power play of the game. Zbynek Michalek was sent off for hooking at 2:46 of the overtime and the exhausted Penguins blocked most of the Devils chances until Brent Johnson made an amazing sliding save on Patrik Elias near the left corner of the net.
Johnson could not regain his footing and Elias made a diving pass to get the puck to Kovalchuk between the circles for a shot into a wide-open net that allowed the Devils to celebrate again.
The Penguins played well despite still being without Sidney Crosby (concussion).
“We thought we deserved better,” Pittsburgh forward Mike Rupp said. “The bottom line is things haven’t gone our way so we are going to keep building off it and keep going and eventually we’ll be able to get out of the little funk we are in and start winning these games.”
The Penguins played most of the game with five defenceman after Kris Letang got an early game misconduct for not tying down his jersey.
“Losing a defenceman early is never easy but I thought the guys stepped up and really played well,” said Johnson, who had 28 saves.
Both teams had chances to break the tie in the third period with Brian Rolston coming closest when he hit the crossbar with just over four minutes to play after being set up by kick pass from Dainius Zubrus.
Kennedy probably had the Penguins best chance, handcuffing Brodeur with a shot from the right circle early in the period.
Zajac, who got only his third career fighting major in the opening minutes, gave the Devils a 1-0 lead with a great individual effort that also took advantage of some sloppy play by the Penguins in their own end.
Zajac picked up a loose puck in centre ice, skated into the Pittsburgh end, split Michalek and fellow defenceman Paul Martin and beat Johnson with a backhander at 3:44 for his 10th goal of the season.
The lead lasted a little more than two minutes and this time it was a Devils’ mistake that allowed Kennedy to tie it.
Kovalchuk, who tallied his eighth winning goal on Wednesday against Tampa Bay, lost control of the puck on the outside of the right circle in his own end. Kennedy collected the puck and got off a quick shot that beat Brodeur for his 15th goal of the season.
Both teams had excellent scoring over the final 15 minutes.
Devils rookie Nick Palmieri hit the crossbar midway through the period, while Johnson had four good saves with the toughest being stops on Elias and Jacob Josefson.
Mark Letestu nearly put the Penguins ahead late in the period with a bank shot off Brodeur after the goalie gave away the puck.
NOTES: Letang got the game misconduct 6:14 after the opening faceoff for not having his jersey tied down in a fight with Zajac. … The wife of Devils forward David Clarkson gave birth to a girl (McKinnley) on Friday morning. … The crowd of 17,625 was the Devils’ sixth sellout in 32 home games. … Kennedy has eight goals since Feb. 2.