Ilya Kovalchuk has been hailed all season for his team-first mindset. On Tuesday in Buffalo, he proved he hasn't lost any of his deadly scoring touch.
Kovalchuk scored his 12th career hat trick – and first as a Devil – as New Jersey downed the Sabres 4-1 at First Niagara Center.
Martin Brodeur made 29 saves for New Jersey (32-20-4), which moved within a point of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Kovalchuk added an assist on the other goal, a strike from Petr Sykora at the start of the third period that stood as the eventual game-winner.
Adam Henrique notched two assists to take the League lead for points by rookies with 37.
Kovalchuk sealed his hat trick with an empty-netter with nine seconds to play. Other Devils had chances to end it, but wanted to wait for Kovalchuk to do the honors.
"Kovie deserves the hat trick," Sykora said. "He's been a force. I can't say enough about him. He creates so much out there and he's playing really fantastic hockey."
The Devils again benefitted from an active power play, going 2-for-7 on the man advantage. They are 10-for-33 over their last nine games, a stretch in which they are 6-1-2.
"We had more energy, we were moving our feet, we were attacking," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer. "We got rewarded with power plays because of that. … We came out and really established our forecheck, got pucks in deep, got them on their heels and got the penalties we needed to cash in."
On Tuesday, the first man-advantage goal came off a textbook give-and-go from Kovalchuk and Patrick Elias. The Devils put the Sabres under heavy pressure late in the period, and got a break when Thomas Vanek went off for tripping at 18:42. Forty-two seconds later, Elias and Kovalchuk traded cross-ice passes before the latter finished past Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller.
"He's a great passer," Kovalchuk said of Elias. "He's going to make that play every day. It's just a great goal."
Pominville tied it at 17:19 of the second. He placed himself at the left post and, through a crowd, managed to push the puck high past Brodeur for his 21st of the season.
That would be all Buffalo would get, however, as Sykora's right-circle snipe at 1:44 of the third put New Jersey ahead to stay. The goal was Sykora's 13th of the season, and New Jersey's second power-play tally of the game. After squandering a 47-second 5-on-3 – and with Mike Weber still in the box for cross-checking – Sykora's shot deflected off defenseman Andrej Sekera's stick and flew in over Miller's right shoulder.
Kovalchuk sealed it at 9:47 when he redirected Henrique's shot into the net on a 2-on-1 after the Devils turned Sekera over in the neutral zone. Buffalo faded further out of the playoff picture with their second straight loss. The Sabres (24-26-6) are 14th in the conference. Miller made 27 saves.
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said special teams were the difference.
"(Can't give up power plays) against that team," Ruff said. "It gave them energy, it took a lot of energy out of our players and it kept a lot of our better players on the bench for too long a period of time."