NEWARK, N.J. – The New Jersey Devils are returning to the playoffs on the run and with a new young hero.
Ilya Kovalchuk scored twice, Stephen Gionta broke a third-period tie with his first NHL goal and the Devils beat the Ottawa Senators 4-2 on Saturday to close the regular season with a season-best six-game winning streak.
“It’s one of the things we talked about,” said Martin Brodeur, who made 31 saves. “We wanted to get into the playoffs playing well. We’ve played as good of hockey as anyone else in the league. Now, the regular season is over and we’ll find out who we’re playing. We will try to concentrate on the things we have to do. We did a good job staying focused. You never know what’s going to happen. Now, we’ll roll the dice, coming in hot.”
New Jersey, the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, will face Florida in the opening round of the playoffs. The Panthers, who split four games with the Devils in the regular season, won the Southeast Division with a 4-1 victory over Carolina on Saturday night.
Ottawa, which lost its final three games, slipped to the No. 8 seed and will face the top-seeded New York Rangers in the first round. The Senators won the season series, 3-1.
The Devils-Panthers series pits New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer against the team that fired him after last season.
“When we played them the first time, I’m not going to lie, there was some emotion involved,” said DeBoer, who failed to make the playoffs in his three seasons in Florida. “But it’s another team for me now. It doesn’t matter. Other than having a few more friends in the stands, that’s about it.”
Gionta, recalled from Albany on Friday, gave the Devils the lead for good, putting in the rebound of Alexei Ponikarovsky’s shot with 9:05 to play.
“It’s really a dream come true,” said Gionta, who played 12 games with New Jersey last season. “I couldn’t have imagined this. The guys were great and really supportive of me coming back. Every kid dreams of getting a goal in the NHL, but it came in a game-winning situation. It really hasn’t hit me yet. It hasn’t quite sunk in. I just wanted to come in and try to help the team. This is so awesome.”
Kovalchuk iced the game with an empty-net goal for the Devils, who missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1996.
Matt Gilroy and Jim O’Brien scored for Ottawa, which like the Devils missed the playoffs last year.
“Right now we have a fresh slate,” Senators goaltender Craig Anderson said. “What happened in the past three games, and really the last 82, is behind us. We have a fresh start. Everyone starts at zero wins and zero losses and that’s our mindset. We have to win four before the other team wins four.”
Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said his team needs to work harder in the playoffs.
“I don’t think we had any in the last three games, really,” he said. “We lacked work ethic, structure and focus in the last three games. Hopefully, that’s over. The season is over and we can get back to being a hard-working team that plays with speed, plays 200 feet and is hard to play against.”
The Devils twice fought back from one-goal deficits.
Petr Sykora tied it at 2 with his second goal in two games and 21st of the season with 2:17 left in the second period. The tally came on a rare 5-on-1 power-play rush that Kovalchuk started with a pass to Marek Zidlicky. Sykora, Dainius Zubrus and Adam Henrique got the next three touches on the puck before Sykora tapped Henrique’s pass into an open net.
O’Brien gave Ottawa a 2-1 lead with 6:01 left in the period. He took a cross-ice pass from Erik Condra and sent a shot off Brodeur’s arm into the net for his third career goal.
Gilroy, who also got an assist on O’Brien’s goal, gave Ottawa its initial lead when Brodeur gave up a bad goal. Gilroy took a weak backhander from along the left boards and the 39-year-old goalie intended to kick the puck back into the corner. His skate seemed to catch in the ice when he kicked at the bouncing puck and it embarrassingly slide into the net at 10:59 of the opening period.
Kovalchuk tied it at 1 with a blast from the dot in the right circle at 15:26 on a power play. He has 37 goals, 25 since Jan. 1.
NOTES: Gionta skated on the Devils’ fourth line with Ryan Carter and Cam Janssen. ….Devils rookie D Adam Larsson, the fourth pick overall in the draft, returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch the last five games. …Senators RW Chris Neil didn’t make the trip after being hurt in a fall in practice. Kaspars Daugavins replaced him in the lineup.