NEWARK, N.J. – Everyone saw Jonathan Toews score in the shootout.
His screen on New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur in the final minute of regulation was just as important in helping the Chicago Blackhawks move a step closer to the Central Division title.
Toews scored the only shootout goal – tying him for the NHL lead this season with eight – Antti Niemi made 32 saves, and the Blackhawks inched closer to their first division crown since 1993 with a 2-1 victory over the Devils on Friday night.
“We need that to win this time of year,” Toews said after Chicago earned its second straight victory after three losses. “We hung in there the whole night. We got better and better as the game went along.”
The Blackhawks also got lucky in the first NHL game without a penalty since March 28, 2001, when Boston beat Toronto 3-0.
Overtime wouldn’t have been necessary if Toews hadn’t positioned himself perfectly between Brodeur and Devils defenceman Mike Mottau with less than 30 seconds left.
The Blackhawks captain and Mottau battled for position as Kris Versteeg took a shot from the right circle. Mottau said Toews gave him a little shove, and the puck went in off the defenceman’s skate with 26 seconds remaining.
“I was off balance a little bit,” Mottau said. “Unfortunately, it went off me and through Marty’s legs.”
“It happened too fast,” Toews added. “It went through my legs. I just tried to go to the net and create a screen. We were bound to get an ugly goal like that.”
Niemi only had to make one save during the shootout, but it was a magnificent pad stop on Zach Parise after Toews beat Brodeur with a wrist shot on Chicago’s first shot.
“I just saw that side of the net, and sometimes he likes to put his glove down there,” Toews said. “He’ll give you that top glove. A lot of shooters will aim for it and he’s waiting for it. I decided to take a chance.”
It was the difference.
Jamie Langenbrunner never got his shot off on the Devils’ first shootout attempt, and Ilya Kovalchuk missed the net with a backhander.
“He’s been huge for us,” Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook said of Niemi, 22-7-3 this season. “He’s won some big games. He kept us in the game and gave our skill forwards a chance to win that game. He was great in the shootout.”
The Blackhawks, with 103 points, moved within three points of clinching the division with five games left. Chicago leads Nashville by seven points, but Detroit – with 95 points and five games remaining – is the only team that can catch the Blackhawks.
Despite a third straight loss, New Jersey still moved into a tie for first place in the Atlantic Division with idle Pittsburgh.
“We’re giving away points, obviously,” said Devils centre Patrik Elias, who set up Kovalchuk’s 40th goal early in the first period. “Especially at this time of year, you want to get those.”
Brodeur and the Devils were on the verge of a 1-0 win that would have given the goalie his 109th career shutout.
Niemi made two good saves in overtime, stopping Dean McAmmond in close with three minutes to go and making an outstanding glove save on Parise with 2:03 left.
Brodeur came up big against Dustin Byfuglien with 1:31 left in the extra period, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Chicago from winning in New Jersey for the first time since 1997.
In losing their last two games to Philadelphia and Boston, the Devils started out slow. Against the Blackhawks, New Jersey came out fast and took 11 of the first 13 shots.
Kovalchuk put the Devils ahead at 5:49, taking a pass from Patrik Elias and beating Niemi with a shot from behind the circles. It marked his fifth straight 40-goal season and sixth overall in the NHL.
Byfuglien had Chicago’s best scoring chance in the first period. He took a pass from Patrick Sharp about 30 feet straight on and ripped a shot that forced Brodeur to make a pad save that had the crowd chanting, “Mar-ty, Mar-ty, Mar-ty.”
NOTES: Devils C Dainius Zubrus didn’t play due to an illness. … C John Madden’s played his first game in New Jersey since he signed with the Blackhawks last summer. Madden played 11 seasons with the Devils and won the Stanley Cup twice. … For the second straight Devils game, officials didn’t call a penalty in the opening two periods. …The Devils had their sixth sellout in the last nine games. … This was the first time New Jersey played in a game in which no penalties were called.