ANAHEIM, Calif. – When Alexander Vasyunov found himself on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias in just his second NHL game, the young Russian simply hoped he wouldn’t appear hopelessly out of place.
He ended up getting a souvenir puck from a skid-snapping win for the New Jersey Devils.
Vasyunov earned his first career point while setting up Elias’ tiebreaking goal early in the third period, and the Devils ended their three-game slide with a 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night.
Jamie Langenbrunner also scored and Martin Brodeur made 27 saves for the Devils, who had lost five of six while plummeting to the bottom of the NHL standings. After losing in the first two stops of their six-game trip, the Devils halted the slide with a tight-checking defensive game.
New Jersey also got an unexpected boost from Vasyunov, who returned from the AHL one day earlier and found himself playing with two linemates boasting a combined 1,407 points. After getting on the board himself with a sharp setup pass to Elias for a one-timer with 18:06 to play, he also blocked a shot in the waning minutes.
“It’s a big game for me, and I felt good, just nervous a little bit,” Vasyunov said while fumbling with the cufflinks on his designer peach-coloured shirt, struggling to get dressed in time to catch the team bus.
“I feel like I’ve played two years in the NHL, not two games,” Vasyunov said. “I’m not nervous—I mean, yeah, for sure I’m nervous, but it feels good to play between two playmakers like that.”
After celebrating Elias’ goal in a defence-dominated game, Kovalchuk fetched the puck for Vasyunov’s mantel. Although the Devils’ US$100 million forward went scoreless for the fourth time in five games, coach John MacLean praised Kovalchuk’s work just six days after benching the superstar for one game.
“We needed it real bad, because this road trip could be tough for us,” Kovalchuk said. “If we play the way we did here, we’ll be OK. We played a solid defensive game, and we got two points for it.”
Kovalchuk is sure to be hit with heavy boos Saturday night when the Devils drive up the I-5 to face the Los Angeles Kings, who ardently courted Kovalchuk for two months before he re-signed with New Jersey.
Both teams looked shaky in their only meeting of the season, but the Devils hung on late for a win they desperately needed. New Jersey slid into last place overall with just five points in its first 10 games, an inauspicious start for a franchise with 18 consecutive winning seasons.
“It’s been tough for the guys, but hopefully now it’ll get a little easier,” said Brodeur, who picked up his 605th victory.
Jason Blake scored a power-play goal and Jonas Hiller stopped 25 shots for Anaheim, which came back flat from a four-game trip. The Ducks haven’t won back-to-back games this season, although they outshot an opponent (28-27) for just the third time.
“We’re not playing as well as we’re supposed to, and this was almost a must-win,” said Hiller, just 3-5-1 despite a .917 save percentage. “We just couldn’t find a way. Every time you think you’ve got it going, we play a game like tonight and lose again. It would be great if we could get a little streak going, but it seems like we go out there every night and no one knows what to expect.”
After killing off four New Jersey power plays, the Ducks capitalized on their first man-advantage when Blake forced his own rebound underneath Brodeur in the second period. Just 2 1/2 minutes later, Langenbrunner slipped a sharp-angled shot between Hiller’s pads for his first goal in the Devils’ 11 games.
After Elias’ goal, the Ducks vainly pressed the attack against New Jersey’s trap throughout the final period.
“That’s their game plan—to get that lead and try to hold it for the rest of the game,” said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, who failed to score for just the second time in eight games. “They’re an excellent team at doing that, and they beat us at their game tonight.”
NOTES: Ducks executive Scott Niedermayer spent part of the game chatting with Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. Niedermayer spent 12 years in the New Jersey organization before joining Anaheim in 2005. … Ducks rookie D Cam Fowler skated and practised Thursday, but didn’t play. The teenager has missed five straight games because ofa neck injury.