Kovalchuk's goal 4:36 into overtime lifted the New Jersey Devils to a 2-1 victory at Toronto -- and made Lemaire just the eighth coach in NHL history to reach the 600-win mark.
"We knew he had 599 and I think he's the best coach I ever played for, definitely," Kovalchuk said. "With his experience, he knows exactly what you need to tell the guys to make them work and make them go. It's a pleasure to play for those kind of coaches."
Lemaire downplayed the milestone, but did pay tribute to the people who helped him reach it.
"A coach is always as good as the players are," he said. "and I've been fortunate to work with good people around me all through my career and I thank them because they were a part of it, all the players that played hard."
The win continued the Devils' second-half surge. They are 11-1-2 in their last 14 games after going 10-29-2 in the first half of the season.
A big reason for the improvement has been the resurgence of Kovalchuk, who has 5 goals and 10 points in his last eight games. His game-winner was the kind of goal the Devils were hoping for when they acquired him from Atlanta a year ago.
Kovalchuk took a pass from defenseman Anssi Salmela in the Devils' end and sped through the neutral zone. He crossed the Leafs' blue line, cut to his right and used defenseman Keith Aulie as a screen as he fired a wrist shot from the right circle that beat rookie goaltender James Reimer under his right arm.
"I wanted to get the screen for the goalie through the D, so it worked," said Kovalchuk, who added that Reimer was impressive.
"He played great, this kid," Kovalchuk said. "I think we'll see him more often. He's a big guy, covers a lot of space and controls rebounds well."
But Reimer was disappointed with the ending.
"It went high and then it kind of dipped a bit," Reimer said. "Just got by my blocker. Tough goal I didn't want to let in. I mean, I thought it was right there.
The goal scored a superb performance by the rookie, who made 37 saves and was the biggest reason the Leafs went home with a point.
"He played really well," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "Like he has every game that he's played, he's given us a chance to win. He did that again tonight.
"We're not happy with the loss, we'll take the point (and) we've got to move forward quick."
The Leafs climbed within seven points of eighth-place Carolina, which lost 2-1 in Philadelphia. But they missed out on a prime opportunity to creep even closer into the picture in the Eastern Conference.
"I don't count it as a loss, we got a point," said coach Ron Wilson, who reached the 600-win mark last month. "We moved another step closer -- now we're seven points back of Carolina because they lost in regulation. Obviously, I wish we'd of had the two points but the Devils are playing great right now."
"It was a weird shot."
Johan Hedberg, playing in place of injured starter Martin Brodeur, stopped 38 shots, allowing only Nikolai Kulemin's goal 5:18 into the second that opened the scoring. Dainius Zubrus tied it 3:23 into the third period on a deflection with the teams playing 4-on-4.
The Devils are now 12-8-2 record since Lemaire replaced John MacLean on Dec. 23. They have climbed into 13th in the East, though they are still 13 points out of a playoff berth.
"I know we can play better than we are right now," said Lemaire.
The Leafs again were let down by their power play. They went 0 for 5 and are 3-for-40 during the past 11 games.
"We have to move the puck," Wilson said. "We've got point men who won't hit the guys open or get the puck up the ice in a hurry. That's something we'll spend a lot of time working on (in practice Friday)."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report
|Nikolai Kulemin (21) Wrist shot - ASST: Phil Kessel (17), Mikhail Grabovski (20)|
1 - 0 TOR
|Dainius Zubrus (11) Tip-in - ASST: Mark Fayne (4), Patrik Elias (27)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Ilya Kovalchuk (18) Wrist shot - ASST: Anssi Salmela (3)|
2 - 1 NJD
|Patrik Elias Tripping against Kris Versteeg|
|David Clarkson Fighting (maj) against Jay Rosehill|
|Jay Rosehill Fighting (maj) against David Clarkson|
|Colin White Roughing against Joffrey Lupul|
|Colby Armstrong Hi-sticking against Mark Fraser|
|Mark Fayne Hooking against Nikolai Kulemin|
|Joffrey Lupul Slashing against Colin White|
|Mark Fraser Slashing against Tyler Bozak|
|Mark Fraser Roughing against Colby Armstrong|
|Colby Armstrong Roughing against Mark Fraser|
|Jason Arnott Interference on goalkeeper against James Reimer|
|Jay Rosehill Interference on goalkeeper against Johan Hedberg|
|Darryl Boyce Tripping against Ilya Kovalchuk|
|Brian Rolston Holding against Colby Armstrong|