NEWARK, N.J. -- It didn't take very long for Ilya Kovalchuk to begin another scoring streak. As a result, the playoff hopes of the New Jersey Devils remain alive.
Kovalchuk, who was held without a point for the first time in 13 games in a victory over Florida on Sunday, slammed home his team-leading 22nd of the season 10:10 into the third period to lead the Devils to a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday at Prudential Center.
"In my eyes, the Devils are definitely a playoff-caliber team right now," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "Their record in their last 22 games speaks for itself. I know Jacques (Lemaire) … I've known him for a long time and I've been studying his stuff for a long time so it's no surprise to me. It's hard to get through and they have a chance to make the playoffs, for sure."
The victory gives the Devils an 18-2-2 mark over their last 22 contests and moves them within nine points of the eighth and final playoff spot with only 19 games remaining. The Carolina Hurricanes, who currently hold the eighth seed with 69 points, have played one more game than the Devils.
"At this point, it doesn't matter who wins … we need to take care of our business," Kovalchuk said. "We take it one at a time and keep preparing ourselves and we'll see what happens."
Travis Zajac made Kovalchuk's winner possible when he intercepted a pass in the offensive zone before feeding serving him a pass between the circles. The big Russian reared back and actually began to fall forward, but not before getting off a one-timer that soared into the left corner of the cage.
"Travis had a good forecheck and got puck from their defenseman and made a great play," Kovalchuk said.
Zajac actually finished the game with three takeaways.
"Travis has been probably our most consistent player," Lemaire praised. "He's quiet but plays the same way every game and stays in good shape. He gives everything."
Center David Steckel, who was making his Devils debut on a line with Rod Pelley and David Clarkson following his trade from Washington on Monday, smiled when asked if he noticed any similarities between Kovalchuk's desire and that of his former captain in Washington, Alexander Ovechkin.
"It's almost identical out there," Steckel said. "When you need a goal, he's the guy to score one, and sure enough, he came through. It's amazing. Every time those guys touch the puck, you never know what's going to happen. But you're usually going to see something special and it happened (Wednesday)."
Zajac realizes there's no reason to look ahead, particularly at a time when a majority of the games remaining will probably come down to the wire.
"From here on out, it's going to be tight hockey," he said. "There won't be too many mistakes by either team this late in the season. Everyone is gearing up for playoffs and teams are playing better. It was definitely an important win … it keeps us alive. Obviously, we can't worry too much about those teams ahead of us though."
Kovalchuk finished with two points, including his team-leading eighth game-winner, and goalie Martin Brodeur made 15 saves for the Devils. Brodeur, who was making his second straight start after missing the previous eight games, is now 10-1-1 over his last 13 starts. Kovalchuk, meanwhile, has notched 5 game-winning goals in the last 11 games.
"He's got a touch and that's why he's getting so much money," Lemaire said with a grin.
The Lightning, now 4-2-2 over their last eight games, are three points in front of the Washington Capitals in the Southeast Division and also three points within the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers. Tampa Bay entered the game having won consecutive 2-1 games, including last Friday's home triumph over the Devils, relying on team defense and goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
Roloson, who is now 12-7-1 since being acquired from the New York Islanders by Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman on Jan. 1, finished with 25 saves.
"We lost a patience game," Boucher said. "We won it back home (last Friday) and lost this one so it was who was going to make the last mistake and we did … we turned it over and they capitalized on it. We're getting better and better, defensively. We didn't give a lot of shots to a team that was home but, offensively, we're passing up shooting opportunities and that's not us. We're a shooting mentality team and there was not enough of that (Wednesday)."
Defenseman Henrik Tallinder had pulled the Devils into a 1-1 tie with just 1:15 left in the second when his blast from the top of the left circle beat Roloson, who had lost his stick, to the near-side post. Kovalchuk got the play started when he picked up a loose puck in his own end and skated into the Lightning zone before feeding Vladimir Zharkov.
The Lightning opened a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal 4:41 into the second when Pavel Kubina took a wrist shot from the right circle that deflected off the skate of Dominic Moore past Brodeur. Moore's tally, his first in six games, was reviewed and upheld by referee Dean Morton.
A tight-checking first period was highlighted by a few big saves both each goalie. Roloson, who made six saves in the first, had a nifty glove save off a snap shot by rookie Nick Palmieri from between the circles 3:03 into the game. Brodeur's biggest save of the game was off Nate Thompson's shorthanded breakaway attempt with his glove 13:53 into the first.
"Marty looked very sharp," Lemaire said.
Meanwhile, Steckel logged 13:33 of ice time, won 4 of 12 face-offs and dished three hits in his New Jersey debut.
"It's funny, I thought he did fine but I don't like the shape he's in," Lemaire said. "He will get better."
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound pivot was just happy to get his first game as a Devil under his belt.
"I think I only remembered two seconds of the first period," Steckel said. "I was trying not to make many mistakes and trying to play within the system. Once I stopped thinking about thinking, I was alright and got pucks deep, got a couple of hits and played more of my game.
"It's tough … you try to play the right systems but you don't actually know until you see yourself. I'll watch this game and have more of an understanding of what I should and shouldn't be doing and we'll go from there. I thought it was a decent starting point and we got a win, so I'm excited about that."