NEWARK, N.J. --Ilya Kovalchuk couldn't quite figure out if Rangers goalie Martin Biron was trying to play head games with him, but he didn't necessarily care either. All Kovalchuk saw was the gaping wide five-hole Biron was leaving for him, and he went straight for it.
"I don't know what he was thinking," Kovalchuk said. "It was a pretty big five-hole there."
Kovalchuk could have shot about a dozen pucks through Biron's legs in the first-round of the shootout Tuesday at Prudential Center, but all he needed was one. It's all the Devils needed, too, because goalie Martin Brodeur stopped Derek Stepan, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik to seal a 4-3 shootout victory over the New York Rangers that allowed the Devils to move up to seventh in the Eastern Conference standings.
Despite the loss, the Rangers held their lead in the conference by virtue of the one point.
The Devils, who are now 9-2 in shootouts this season, came back from three one-goal deficits to force overtime. David Clarkson scored with 47.6 seconds left to tie the game at 3-3. Kovalchuk made it 2-2 with 4:35 remaining, but Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto scored 36 seconds later to give the Rangers the lead again.
"It's a big one for sure," said Devils coach Pete DeBoer, whose team snapped a three-game winless streak. "We're at a time when obviously they're all big, but we really needed a win against a really good team, the best of our conference right now. During a critical homestand here, it's a big two points."
Clarkson's game-tying goal in the final minute of regulation was all about being in the right place at the right time. Andy Greene, who was playing for the first time since breaking his foot on Dec. 6, tried to rim a hard shot down the right-wing glass, but the puck hit a stanchion in the corner and bounced directly into the slot, where Clarkson was all alone.
Clarkson said the puck was bouncing on him, but he settled it down in time and blasted it through Biron's five-hole.
"I guess it was a gift," Clarkson said. "It just landed on my stick. It wasn't pretty, but I'll take it."
Greene said he wasn't trying to do anything special other than get the puck deep into the zone and let Clarkson do some forechecking. He said the bounce and subsequent goal reminded him of a certain commercial played constantly during sporting events.
"It was like that Buffalo Wild Wings commercial, with the field goal at the end, the guy hits the sprinkler, and it knocks the guy out," Greene said. "Nobody wanted to go home yet."
The Rangers, who flew to Buffalo immediately after the game, felt they did enough to win if not for a brutal bounce in the final minute of regulation.
"It's not like we had a breakdown or anything like that," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "It's a rim, it goes off the stanchion. We don't want to accept it, but again, you hope one will go your way somewhere later in the year. We can't do anything about that."
DeBoer said Clarkson's goal makes up for the goal that Buffalo scored against the Devils in the last game before the All-Star break.
Nathan Gerbe's shot from the top of the left circle hit off a stanchion behind the net and bounced directly to the front of the net to Jordan Leopold, who stuffed it inside the right post before Brodeur could react. The Devils wound up losing to the game, 2-1, in a shootout.
"Those things even out," DeBoer said.
The Devils and Rangers combined for three goals over the final 4:35 of regulation, starting with Kovalchuk's power-play goal from the right hash marks. However, Del Zotto didn't let the public address announcer finish reciting the details of Kovalchuk's goal before scoring what he was hoping would be the game-winner.
Del Zotto collected a strong, cross-ice pass from Marian Gaborik and rifled a stick-side shot from the right circle past Brodeur with 3:59 remaining in regulation to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.
Del Zotto, though, was watching from the bench when Clarkson scored off the odd bounce.
"We've got a quick turnaround, we're going to Buffalo," Biron said. "We've got a chance to get three (points) out of four. I think that's focus for our team right now."
The Devils focus is to just keep collecting two points, regardless of how they do it. They only have 18 non-shootout wins, last among the top 11 teams in the Eastern Conference, but that stat will only matter if they're tied for eighth place in points after 82 games.
"Right now a win is a win and we've got to get them any way we can," Parise said. "Ideally you'd love not to go in the shootout, but I don't think we're going to regret winning the game in the shootout. I know there are no shootouts in the playoffs, but you've got to get there first."