"You're trying so hard to get the puck to a new teammate, especially someone like Ilya, because he's so fun to watch," Devils forward Jay Pandolfo said.
The Devils appeared on their way to a lackluster loss to Toronto until they came alive in the final 3:04 of regulation. Pandolfo put the finishing touches on an amazing comeback when he capped a three-goal comeback by scoring with 18.2 seconds remaining to give the Devils a 4-3 victory over the stunned Leafs.
The Devils, trailing 3-1 with the third period winding down, got within a goal when Dean McAmmond beat Jonas Gustavsson (24 saves) with a backhander with 3:04 remaining. Toronto's Alexei Ponikarovsky then took a hooking penalty with 2:22 left and, with Martin Brodeur off for an extra attacker, Travis Zajac got them even on a blast from the top of the left circle with 43.7 seconds showing on the PrudentialCenter scoreboard.
"It was obviously a huge goal, but Dean's goal was even bigger because it gave us life on the bench and three minutes were still remaining," Pandolfo said.
Kovalchuk, the third star of the game, got an assist on the game-tying goal by Zajac -- his second helper of the night.
"You can tell the guys were going hard at the net, and we drew that penalty because we raised our intensity a little higher," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "Kovy was on the ice towards the end and people were running around looking for him. Everyone was really emotionally involved.''
With the PrudentialCenter crowd now rocking and Toronto reeling, Pandolfo rammed home the rebound of Mike Mottau's slap shot to give the Devils just their fourth victory in 12 games.
"I was just going to the net and Jamie (Langenbrunner) made a great play in the zone to keep it in and made a nice pass to back to Motts, and I went to the net and got the rebound," said Pandolfo, who scored for the first time in 16 games.
For the Leafs, who scored a 3-0 triumph over the Devils just three nights ago, it was a tough loss to swallow.
"I think it was our toughest loss," Gustavsson said. "We lose a game that we were controlling the whole time. It was a complete turnaround late in the game and it's tough because you really want to win and get the points. But we have to go on."
Kovalchuk, a three-time All-Star and two-time 50-goal scorer, was playing his first game with the Devils after being acquired Thursday from Atlanta. He finished with the two assists and one shot on goal in 21:43 of ice time.
"I'm very excited," he said. "I took a bad penalty (for interference) that led to their second goal so to make a comeback like that was great. I remember a few comebacks like that with the Thrashers. I thought Marty was great in the third when they had a power play (and Toronto holding a 3-1 lead). I think it was the difference in the game."
Brodeur, who made five of his 17 saves in the final period, felt the win was huge for the team's confidence.
"I think the emotion we had was something we haven't shown in a little while so to come back and win it was great,'' Brodeur said. "It's not the way you want to win games but we'll take it and build on it because you can tell how relieved everyone was in the end.
"It was a tough game because there were high expectations (with Kovalchuk in the lineup) and people were looking at Kovy all night. We were looking at him too. It's just nice to pull it off at the end."
It was the Leafs' second game since GM Brian Burke acquired star defenseman Dion Phaneuf, forward Fredrik Sjostrom and prospect Keith Aulie from Calgary and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere from Anaheim. Giguere shut out the Devils in his Leafs debut on Tuesday, but coach Ron Wilson opted to play Gustavsson in the rematch. Giguere will get the start at home against Ottawa on Saturday.
"We played a solid game until that two-minute mark in the third and it's tough," defenseman Francois Beauchemin said. "We had two points in the bank but weren't focused for two minutes and it cost us. We have to think about the mistakes we made -- like the breakdowns in our zone and our passing through the box on the PK -- and think about Ottawa (on Saturday). It won't be easy."
Kovalchuk got his first point as a Devil at 13:20 of the opening period, assisting on a goal by Dainius Zubrus that gave New Jersey a 1-0 lead. Gustavsson stopped a puck behind the Toronto net, but his clearing attempt was blocked by Jamie Langenbrunner along the right-wing wall. Langenbrunner alertly tipped a pass to Kovalchuk, who spotted Zubrus charging down the slot. Zubrus split Phaneuf and Sjostrom before backhanding a shot into the net while falling to the ice.
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said he may have Kovalchuk play on a line more with Zach Parise and Zajac because "they know how to hold on to the puck and can see the ice so well." He'll get that opportunity on Saturday when the Devils visit MadisonSquareGarden to face the Rangers before traveling to Philadelphia on Monday.
The second period belonged to the Leafs, who dominated play en route to scoring three times.
Tomas Kaberle tied it at 3:39 when his power-play blast from the left point deflected off Pandolfo's stick 35 feet from the net and soared past the outstretched glove of Brodeur.
Lee Stempniak put Toronto ahead at 10:23 when he skated across ice to the right circle before firing an innocent-looking slap shot that went through the legs of a screened Brodeur. It became 3-1 when Rickard Wallin scored his first NHL goal since April 2004 -- when he was a member of the Minnesota Wild. Wallin took advantage of a misplay in the Devils zone by picking up a loose puck and snapping a shot from the slot past a surprised Brodeur.
Phil Kessel chipped in with two assists in the period.
For nearly 17 minutes of the third period, the Leafs played a perfect road game -- the Prudential Center crowd was quiet as Toronto kept dumping the puck and New Jersey showed little offensive spark.
That all changed with 3:04 left when McAmmond took a pass from Vladimir Zharkov between the circles and backhanded a shot up and over the fallen Gustavsson to make it 3-2.
|Dainius Zubrus (4) ASST: Ilya Kovalchuk (28), Jamie Langenbrunner (32)|
1 - 0 NJD
|PPG - Tomas Kaberle (6) ASST: Phil Kessel (17), Tyler Bozak (7)|
1 - 1 Tie
|PPG - Lee Stempniak (14) ASST: NONE|
2 - 1 TOR
|Rickard Wallin (1) ASST: Phil Kessel (18)|
3 - 1 TOR
|Dean McAmmond (6) ASST: Vladimir Zharkov (8), Mike Mottau (7)|
3 - 2 TOR
|PPG - Travis Zajac (17) ASST: Dean McAmmond (7), Ilya Kovalchuk (29)|
3 - 3 Tie
|Jay Pandolfo (4) ASST: Mike Mottau (8), Jamie Langenbrunner (33)|
4 - 3 NJD
|Power Play %||15.9%||19.3%|
|% on Road||11.0%||21.6%|
|% at Home||20.6%||17.3%|
|Francois Beauchemin Tripping against Ilya Kovalchuk|
|Rob Niedermayer Slashing against John Mitchell|
|Jay Rosehill Slashing against Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond|
|Vladimir Zharkov Tripping against Christian Hanson|
|Ilya Kovalchuk Interference against Fredrik Sjostrom|
|Colin White Slashing against Lee Stempniak|
|Alexei Ponikarovsky Hooking against Dainius Zubrus|