NEWARK, N.J. – Travis Zajac helped the New Jersey Devils erase the embarrassment of blowing a late two-goal lead to the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs.
Zajac scored at 4:14 of overtime as the Devils escaped with 5-4 victory Friday night. “For the first two periods, we had the gas pedal down,” Zajac said. “We were on them, pressuring them, making them turn the puck over. In the third, we kind of let off.”
Suddenly, the Maple Leafs were in the driver’s seat.
Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan scored in the final 5:01 to pull Toronto even at 4. Their late heroics were not enough to prevent the Maple Leafs from going winless in five straight.
Stajan tied it with 1:31 remaining in regulation, knocking in the rebound of Tomas Kaberle’s point shot that found its way to the net through a maze of players.
That came after Ponikarovsky stripped the puck from Devils defenceman Bryce Salvador to cut it to 4-3 with 5:01 left.
Then Zajac saved the evening for the Devils.
After assisting on three goals in regulation, Zajac fired a shot from the top of the right circle that beat Vesa Toskala for a power-play goal. Zach Parise set up the winner and finished with two goals and two assists.
“We just wanted to set up the box,” Zajac said. “I fed it down to Zach and he just made a nice return pass into my wheelhouse. I was just able to get a good shot. It’s been tough scoring goals lately and it was great to get some breaks and some chances.”
Dainius Zubrus and Patrick Davis also scored for New Jersey, and Martin Brodeur made 25 saves to help the Atlantic Division-leading Devils snap a two-game losing streak.
Carl Gunnarsson and Colton Orr had the other Toronto goals.
Parise scored twice in the opening period and the Devils took a 2-1 lead as the line juggling by Devils coach Jacques Lemaire paid off.
The Devils, mired in a 2-5-1 slump coming into the game, had scored only 12 goals in that span. In an effort to spark his offence, Lemaire moved Zubrus, playing only his third game after missing 30 with a broken knee cap, up to the top line with Parise and Zajac.
They quickly meshed, after Toronto grabbed the early lead.
Gunnarsson put the Maple Leafs on the board with his first NHL goal at 6:11. The Swedish rookie defenceman fired a shot from the left point that sailed over Broduer’s glove and under the crossbar.
The lead lasted only 59 seconds as Parise pulled the Devils even. Maple Leafs defenceman Ian White turned the puck over in his zone, setting up Parise for a hard shot that went wide of the net. Zubrus snared the carom off the end board, zipping the puck across the crease to Parise for an easy tap in.
White coughed up the puck again on Parise’s second tally at 13:40. Zajac picked off White’s poor clearing pass, whipping the puck to Zubrus who relayed it to Parise. Parise beat Jonas Gustavsson between the pads, giving the Devils star a two-goal game for the 20th time in his career and fifth this season.
While the Devils celebrated, White smashed his stick against the post, shattering the shaft in frustration.
“He was guilty of making a couple of turnovers and they buried them,” Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of White. “Zach Parise, if he gets opportunities like that, smells blood and he’s right to the net and boom, it’s in.”
Parise came close to bagging the hat trick early in the second with the Devils on the power play. Gustavsson robbed him twice, including a sparkling glove save on Parise’s blast from the right circle.
Parise, playing an inspired game, came charging into the Toronto zone on a breakaway about four minutes later. Only a diving stop by Gustavsson prevented another New Jersey goal.
But Parise wasn’t done. Bulling his way past two Maple Leafs in centre ice, Parise nudged the puck ahead to Zajac for a two-on-one break that concluded with Zubrus scoring the first goal of his comeback at 9:22.
“It seemed like every shift we were getting a least one scoring chance,” said Parise, who had a game-high nine shots on goal. “That makes the game a lot more fun. It felt good to put some goals in. We let them back in there, but it does feel good to get some offence going.”
Toskala replaced Gustavsson at 11:47, and the change gave the Maple Leafs a brief lift that led to Orr’s goal at 14:41.
Wilson said the move was not a reflection on Gustavsson.
“I just decided to change things up, to change our momentum,” Wilson said. “I didn’t like the way was game was going. It wasn’t his fault at all. It worked. “
Orr, an enforcer more than a scorer, gloved down a pass from Jamal Mayers and got a one-step jump on the Devils defence. With the posse closing in, Orr whipped a shot past Brodeur for his first goal in 29 games to cut the Devils lead to 3-2.
New Jersey when back up by two with 2:41 remaining in the period as rookie Davis got his first NHL goal
The suspense early in the final period centred on Parise’s bid for his second hat trick. Toskala made a glove save on his snap shot about five minutes in.
Then it got serious, as Toronto mounted the comeback that forced the overtime.
In a scheduling quirk, the game was the first of three between the Maple Leafs and Devils in an eight-day span. They meet again Tuesday in Toronto before returning to New Jersey on Friday.
NOTES: Rod Pelley was activated from injured reserve by the Devils after missing five games because of a lower-body injury. Pelley replaced RW Niclas Bergfors, who had no goals and one assist in his last 14 games. The Devils also assigned RW Ilkka Pikkarainen to CSKA Moscow. He cleared NHL waivers Jan. 22 after scoring one goal and three assists in 17 games. … The Devils and Maple Leafs meet for the fourth and final time this season on March 18 in Toronto. … A pair of Maple Leafs reached games milestones Friday: Niklas Hagman (600) and Orr (300).