It was a plan that worked again Friday night at Prudential Center.
Kovalchuk scored with 24.9 seconds left in overtime - his sixth game-winning tally in the past month - and Martin Brodeur made 25 saves to lift the Devils to a 2-1 victory against the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I don't think tonight was our best effort - it seemed like we sat back and we didn't have that jump in our legs," Kovalchuk said. "We still found a way to win. Those nights are going to happen. We've confidence in this room right now."
The Devils have allowed just 36 goals in their remarkable 23-game surge, and they are 10-0-1 in their last 11 in Newark.
They are still nine points behind eighth-place Carolina and 11 behind the seventh-place New York Rangers. But after being 27 points out of a playoff berth at the season's midpoint, even being this close is a remarkable achievement.
"It is exciting for everybody to be at least back in the picture somehow," Brodeur said. "I think it is kind of fun for us. We are definitely kind of tired of talking about it because we just want to do our thing and talk about it if we're there at the end. We know it is not really probable that it is going to happen, but we're going to give it a shot."
The Devils get some help from the schedule maker in the next couple of weeks. Beginning Sunday on Long Island, New Jersey plays its next six games against four non-playoff teams in the East -- two each against the Islanders, Ottawa and Atlanta.
The loss was the 10th in 13 games for the Penguins, who continue to play without their top three goal scorers. Evgeni Malkin is out for the season and captain Sidney Crosby is out indefinitely with a concussion, but wing Chris Kunitz could be back as soon as Saturday in Boston from a lower-body injury.
New Jersey went the first 62-plus minutes without a power play, but Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek went to the box for hooking with 2:14 remaining in the extra period. The Penguins warded off the 4-on-3 advantage for the first 100-plus seconds, but goaltender Brent Johnson was forced to scramble toward the right post to make a sliding save and was unable to reset by the time Patrik Elias collected the puck behind the net and sent it to Kovalchuk in the left circle for a game-ending blast.
"Jacques puts me a lot into those situations, and he expects a lot from me and from our line," Kovalchuk said of coach Jacques Lemaire. "I gave that puck away when they scored the goal in the second period, so I feel like I needed to do something because the guys were working so hard to get those two points."
After a dreadful first half, Kovalchuk has 13 second-half goals. He is tied with Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the League lead with nine game-winners.
"We all knew - we saw a lot of flashes last season of what he's able to do," Brodeur said of Kovalchuk, who cost the Devils a king's ransom in talent when they acquired him from Atlanta last year and in commitment when they inked him to a 15-year contract last summer. "It was hard on the team, and I think the team is playing better so for him it is easier to go through games and not being looked at all the time.
"With the talent that he has - and not just the talent, but the effort that he brings every night - it is not like he's floating out there. He's playing a hard 27 minutes. He's going at it pretty hard and the puck is finding him right now."
Kovalchuk now has 23 goals this season, but 13 have come in the past 22 games. He was New Jersey's ice time leader among forwards at 22:50. Before the game Lemaire talked about how Kovalchuk needs to shoot more and how often he implores him to do so.
Kovalchuk ended up with just three shots on net in six attempts -- but again was responsible for the most important one of the night.
"Marty was really good - not as much [Kovalchuk]," Lemaire said. "But he scored the big goal. Again, that's why he's getting paid. I know he could play better."
Travis Zajac - Lemaire's pick for the best player on the ice - gave the Devils the lead at 3:43 of the second period. He skated through two pairs of Pittsburgh defenders before handcuffing Johnson with a backhander for his 10th goal of the season.
Zajac also was part of the one critical moment of a scoreless first period. He and Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang dropped the gloves 6:14 into the game; Letang was ejected for not having his jersey tied down properly.
"That's something that is not going to happen often, but there are times that is does happen," Zajac said of the fight. "It is part of the game. It is an emotional game, a tense game. That stuff happens."
The Penguins played with five defensemen the rest of the game, and Paul Martin logged 35:26 of ice time because of it. Michalek might have approached 30 minutes had he not been in the penalty box at the end.
"Losing a defenseman early is never easy but I thought the guys stepped up and really played well," said Johnson, who made 28 saves.
An unfortunate turnover for Kovalchuk led to Pittsburgh's lone score. His pass hit a linesman and went right to Tyler Kennedy, who beat Brodeur for his 15th goal of the season at 5:58 of the second. That's the most for the Penguins by any player on the active roster with Crosby, Malkin and Kunitz out.
After winning eight of the first 12 games Crosby missed, Pittsburgh is now 3-6-4 since Malkin went down - and none of the three wins came in regulation. This contest also followed a familiar script for the Penguins - strong defense and goaltending but not enough offense.
"We thought we deserved better," said forward Mike Rupp, a former Devil. "The bottom line is things haven't gone our way so we are going to keep building off it and keep going and eventually we'll be able to get out of the little funk we are in and start winning these games."
|Travis Zajac Fighting (maj) against Kris Letang|
|Kris Letang Fighting (maj) against Travis Zajac|
|Kris Letang Game misconduct|
|Dainius Zubrus Hi-sticking against Deryk Engelland|
|Colin White Boarding against Mark Letestu|
|Zbynek Michalek Hooking against Travis Zajac|