NEWARK, N.J. - Ilya Kovalchuk is finally playing like a US$100 million man.
Kovalchuk scored with 3:59 to play for his second game-winning goal in as many nights and the New Jersey Devils won the matchup of the NHL's hottest teams with a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Friday night.
"I've seen it before," said Devils goaltender Johan Hedberg, who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta. "This is the fifth year I've been with him. He's an elite player in the world. Like everybody else, he had a slower start than he wanted. You can tell he's stepped it up a couple of notches. He's playing a complete hockey game all over the ice and he's scoring the big goals."
The turnaround has coincided with the late-December coaching change that saw Jacques Lemaire replace John MacLean.
Kovalchuk not only has developed his two-way game under Lemaire, he has rediscovered his scoring touch, tallying 11 of his 19 goals since the switch.
"We're all playing better," said Kovalchuk, who has nine goals in the Devils' current 12-1-2 spurt that has kindled playoffs hopes. "It seems like we never stop battling. That's character. That's when you feel comfortable to play confident with the puck and without it and we get the bounces. We didn't feel that in the first 30 games, that's for sure."
This game was a mirror of the last three. They fell behind and found a way to come back.
Brian Rolston had tied the game earlier in the third period on a power play and Hedberg made 31 saves to keep the Sharks at bay as New Jersey won its fourth straight.
Patrick Marleau scored for San Jose, which had a season-high five-game winning streak snapped and lost for the first time in regulation in 11 games (9-1-1).
"You don't want to see the streak end, that's for sure," Marleau said. "I think we carried the play a lot of the game and didn't find the back of the net. It's something we wanted to keep going. Now we have to start a new one."
Kovalchuk had given the Devils a 2-1 overtime win in Toronto on Thursday night with a great rush up the ice.
This game winner was ordinary, except for the shot. Travis Zajac won a faceoff in the Sharks' end and Kovalchuk swooped in from the left side of the circle, skated to the right edge and snapped a shot that beat goaltender Antti Niemi.
"He's one of our best guys on faceoffs," Kovalchuk said of Zajac. "I always think he's going to win and I just looked for the puck. We've been practicing that a lot."
Sharks coach Todd McLellan wasn't sure if Kovalchuk's shot went off a shin pad.
"You need to win those faceoffs, especially with him on the ice," McLellan said.
Any chance the Sharks had of tying ended quickly when Torrey Mitchell picked up a four-minute high sticking penalty to put the Devils on a power play the rest of the game.
This is a game the Sharks seemed to have the upper hand for the first 47 minutes.
Marleau tapped in the rebound of a point shot by Niclas Wallin at 6:02 of the third period to give San Jose a 1-0 lead, and things looked bad for New Jersey when defenceman Henrik Tallinder picked up a hooking penalty a little more than a minute later.
Instead of capitalizing, the Sharks picked up their first two penalties as Joe Thornton was called for hooking and Logan Couture was whistled for a tripping penalty on an odd-man Devils' rush.
New Jersey cashed in quickly on the 4-on-3 advantage as Rolston took a pass from Kovalchuk and ripped a shot past Niemi, who was looking for his third shutout in four games.
Hedberg, starting his third straight game with Martin Brodeur sidelined with a sprained right knee, stopped Dany Heatley and Kyle Wellwood in close before Kovalchuk, who signed a 15-year, $100 million contract in the off-season, delivered again.
For much of the first two periods, the Devils showed the effects of playing their seventh game in 11 days. They looked a step slower than the Sharks and the puck stayed in their end much of the opening 40 minutes.
New Jersey's only action came inthe opening two minutes of the second period, when Rolston had a shot between the circles and Tallinder had two shots from the right points. The shot total was one more than they had in the first period.
While San Jose had the territorial advantage and a 24-11 edge in shots, it didn't have a lot of great scoring chances. The best might have been Ryane Clowe's deflection of a Wellwood centring pass with 14:49 left in the second period.
Notes: Defenceman Jay Leach, who was acquired in a minor league trade between the Devils and Sharks on Wednesday, was called up from Albany for the game, but was a healthy scratch. ... Mitchell returned to the lineup after missing 10 games with a lower body injury. ... The Sharks beat New Jersey 5-2 in San Jose on Oct. 27. ... San Jose has not won in New Jersey since Nov. 14, 2000.