NEWARK, N.J. --The 2010-11 season for the New Jersey Devils was a bad dream, with the loss of Zach Parise serving as the nightmare fuel that left the team shaken and unable to recover entirely.
Parise went down with a season-ending (except for one game in April) knee injury in October, a knee that was ailing the superstar before it finally gave out in Los Angeles on Oct. 30. Without one of the League's true offensive superstars, the Devils scored a League-low 171 goals and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
On Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes, though, Parise announced he was back with a dominating display at both ends of the ice.
The 27-year-old scored his first two goals of the season and anchored a penalty-killing unit that remained perfect as the Devils defeated the Hurricanes 4-2 to earn their first victory of the 2011-12 season.
Parise opened the scoring early in the first period and capped it with an empty-net power-play goal in the final minutes. In between, fellow superstar Ilya Kovalchuk broke a 2-2 tie early in the third period and defenseman Mark Fayne snapped home his first of the season off a great pass from Kovalchuk in the second period.
The loss dropped the Hurricanes to 0-2-1, the identical start the Devils had last season on their way to a disaster that's not a topic of conversation in the locker room this season.
"We don't talk about it," Parise said of last season. "Everyone knows it was just tough for everybody. We don't sit here and say, 'We have to start better than last year.' We just have to play and do the right things and we'll be a good team. We're not concerned about that."
After a 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in Saturday's opener, Parise opened the scoring at the 3:59 mark of the first period. He dipped behind Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison to deflect a perfect pass from Patrik Elias to make it 1-0.
It was Parise's first goal since Oct. 23, 2010. That's a long drought for anyone, but especially for a four-time 30-goal scorer who reached 45 goals in 2008-09. Still, Parise said scoring a goal isn't a signal that he's all the way back, and said he's still working on getting comfortable with things like timing and not being "antsy" with the puck in tight spaces.
"Legs-wise, conditioning-wise, I feel great," Parise said. "I have no doubts that I'll get back to the same, even better than I was before. It takes time. It's a long time being away from the game. I think the biggest part for me is to be patient, to not get too worked up if things aren't going well because it's tough being away for that long.
"No matter what, when you're playing all the time or once in a while, scoring a goal, you always get a little extra jump in your step. That felt good to get the first one. Now we don't have to talk about it anymore."
The score remained 1-0 until the midway point of the second period, when Alexei Ponikarovsky used a terrific redirection from the slot and a perfect screen from Brandon Sutter to beat Johan Hedberg, who was outstanding in making 24 saves in his first start of the season. But that goal at 8:56 was answered 40 seconds later by the Devils.
Kovalchuk glided down the left wing and jammed on the breaks after entering the Hurricanes zone. He waited patiently for Fayne to join the rush and hit him in stride with a pass to the right wing. Fayne fired a shot to the far side that eluded goaltender Cam Ward to put the Devils back in front.
Carolina answered 3:11 later as Chad LaRose took advantage of an out-of-position Henrik Tallinder and snapped a shot that beat Hedberg high to the blocker side. Hedberg said afterward that the shot tipped slightly off Tallinder's stick, but it still was a save he felt he should have made.
The Devils appeared to be on the ropes early in the third period, facing a Hurricanes two-man advantage for 44 seconds. But behind some great work by Dainius Zubrus during the 5-on-3 and great work throughout the two minutes by Hedberg, the Devils killed the penalties to set the stage for Kovalchuk's winner.
It started with some hard work behind the Hurricanes' net by Jacob Josefson and Nick Palmieri, who took the puck away from the Hurricanes defense. Josefson found Kovalchuk in the slot alone, and he buried his own rebound at 6:06 to put the Devils ahead for good.
Kovalchuk's first of the season wouldn't have been possible without the Devils' penalty-killing unit, which is 13-for-13 this season.
"It was a great job from our goaltender to Zubrus up front," said coach Peter DeBoer, who enjoyed his first win as Devils coach. "I thought Zubrus did an outstanding job there at a critical time of the game."
After seeing 5:11 in shorthanded ice time in the opener, Parise registered another 3:21 against the Hurricanes. It's rare to see offensively gifted players log so much time on the penalty kill, especially considering Parise averaged about 30 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game the previous four seasons.
Parise has been pressed into the role largely because of an Achilles tendon injury to Travis Zajac, who isn't expected back for a while. It's new territory for Parise, but he's embracing it and excelling at it.
"I need to give Travis a call because I'm taking all his minutes. I'm gassed," Parise joked. "Killing's fun. You don't want to sit on the bench for 2-3 minutes. I'm sure they'll show me things tomorrow that I have to do better on it, but I feel comfortable out there and Patty (Elias) is doing a real good job talking to me and the 'D' are telling me where to go, so it makes it a little easier."
"Zach's just a good hockey player," DeBoer said. "He's good in any situation you use him in. I thought that's as close to Zach Parise at the top of his game as I remember him. He was everywhere on the ice. That's a good sign."
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