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Devils defeat Penguins with goal from Kovalchuk

by Mike G. Morreale /

NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils gave their fans one last win on home ice Thursday when they rallied for three unanswered goals on the way to a 3-2 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Prudential Center.

Ilya Kovalchuk capped the comeback with the game-winner 13:50 into the third period, his first goal in over a month. With the victory, the Devils won three of four games against the Penguins this season.

"Yeah, it's nice to get one … I don't remember when the last time was I scored," Kovalchuk said. "Probably over a month ago."

Kovalchuk took a cross-ice pass from Steve Sullivan in the Pittsburgh end before unleashing a wrist shot from the dot in the right circle that deflected off Brandon Sutter's stick in the slot and past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The goal was Kovalchuk's 11th of the season, his first since March 13.

The Penguins, who have clinched the Atlantic Division and top seed in the Eastern Conference, have followed a seven-game winning streak with two successive losses. They'll close the regular season Saturday at home against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"We don't like the situation of giving up a lead," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

The Devils, who were forced to kill a Penguins power play with less than five minutes left in the third, rallied from 2-0 down on goals by Travis Zajac, David Clarkson and Kovalchuk. Goalie Johan Hedberg made 16 saves in his first victory since March 13.

The game was the season finale at Prudential Center. The players and coach Peter DeBoer dedicated the win to their fans, with 16,122 on hand Thursday.

"The fans have been amazing, great again tonight, and I can't thank them enough and really feel badly that we're not giving them playoff hockey this year," DeBoer said.

The Devils, last year's Eastern Conference champions, will close out their schedule Saturday at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, who clinched a Stanley Cup Playoff berth with a victory over the Hurricanes on Thursday.

"It's too bad [Saturday's] game is not going to mean anything," Kovalchuk said. "It would have been more fun if the game meant something, but I think it's great for the League that [the Rangers] are in because they are a franchise with a lot of history. They have good players and deserve to be in. We're just going in there to try our best to win the last game."

The Devils pulled even, 2-2, on Clarkson's power-play goal 3:01 into the third period. It was his team-leading 15th goal of the season.

"The penalty kill in the third period was a big one," Bylsma said. "We weren't able to kill that off and that got them even. They came hard at us. There are areas where we need to be better."

Patrik Elias made the play possible with a picturesque feed to Clarkson from just below the end line. Clarkson's rising snap shot from the left circle beat Fleury on the short side with Pascal Dupuis in the box for tripping.

Elias, the game's second star, was serenaded by the fans at the end of the game with chants of "Patty! Patty!" Elias will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

"That was great … they show their appreciation and I was trying to do my best job out there," Elias said. "The fans recognize that, so it always feels good."

Kovalchuk said he expects the team to re-sign Elias.

"It was nice to hear those cheers … he's a UFA after this year, but I got a feeling he's not going to go anywhere," Kovalchuk said. "I hope they are going to re-sign him."

Hedberg was forced to make several big stops to keep the game even. His glove save on a rising slap shot by Evgeni Malkin from the left circle 11:30 into the third prompted "Mooose!" chants.

"There was no quit and that's the way it's been all year," Hedberg said. "We showed a lot of character from our group and lot of professionalism. We wanted to give the fans something to cheer about. They've been here all year for us and it was good we could leave here with a good feeling."

New Jersey pulled within 2-1 when Zajac took a pass from Elias and swept home his seventh of the season on a turnaround snap shot past Fleury.

"We had another good crowd, we've had great fans throughout the whole year," Elias said. "We're getting a solid fan base and last year helped and we all hoped it would happen again, but that 10-game stretch really hurt us. Hopefully they appreciated our effort of not giving up."

Pittsburgh's Jussi Jokinen gave his team a 2-0 lead with a power-play goal 14:01 into the second period. After taking a feed from Fleury in the Pittsburgh end, Kris Letang slowly skated up ice, and just as his crossed his blue line feathered a dart to Jokinen in the left circle. Jokinen controlled the puck and blasted a shot that beat Hedberg high on the long side.

The loss didn't sit well with Jokinen.

"I think it's a good wake-up call for our team," he said. "If we play like that, we don't deserve to win hockey games. I don't think we did all the little details you need to do to win hockey games."

The Penguins were playing without captain Sidney Crosby for the 11th straight game. The team said Crosby, who sustained a broken jaw March 30, will practice Friday.

"It will be great for the whole team to get the best player in the world back," Jokinen said. "It's much better with him coming back in the lineup."

The Penguins opened a 1-0 lead 8:52 into the game when Matt Cooke took a backhand in the slot that went underneath Hedberg and over the goal line. Hedberg, who was making his first start since March 19, kept the Devils within striking distance 17 seconds later when he denied Sutter's quality attempt outside the paint.

Fleury was very busy at the other end in the first period, turning aside all 12 shots he faced. His best save came with four minutes left when he denied wide-open Clarkson from the left hash in the butterfly stance. He finished with 29 saves.


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