– Ilya Kovalchuk
was the hero again for the surging New Jersey Devils
as their improbable run continues to gain momentum.
Kovalchuk scored his second game-winning goal in as many nights and third in four contests as the Devils defeated the San Jose Sharks 2-1 Friday night at Prudential Center for their 12th win in 15 tries.
"It is different feeling when you're winning," Kovalchuk said after beating Antti Niemi with 3:59 left in regulation to break a 1-1 tie. "You just keep going, keep working. You trust each other and nobody tries to go and do it themselves. We play as a five-man unit, and it is working."
This night began with the mention of Kovalchuk's name in the starting lineup eliciting a rousing cheer from a Prudential Center flush with fans.
Early in the contest, Kovalchuk fumbled the puck and was knocked to the ice -- and the all too familiar sounds of groans and boos returned. Eventually the announced crowd of 17,102 was again smitten by their talented Russian, as Kovalchuk's nickname was chanted and ovations in his honor filled the arena.
Such is the current status of the relationship between Kovalchuk and the New Jersey faithful. They desperately want to embrace him, and despite a tough beginning, Kovalchuk is finally starting to give them reason to believe.
"It is great," Devils center Travis Zajac said. "He's creating a lot offensively. He's shooting the puck. He's working as hard defensively as he has been offensively, so that's been great for our team and for guys to see how he wants to compete every night and be a force at both ends of the ice.
"It has helped our team and it has helped him out too because he's able to get the puck coming out of the zone with more speed and he's able to do more with it. He's shooting and he's getting those bounces that he wasn't getting earlier in the season."
Both teams were sluggish through the first two periods. San Jose had 12 shots in each, but few quality chances to score. The Devils were playing for the seventh time in 11 nights, including three of the past four, and mustered only two shots on goal in the first period.
"It is nice to do this, but I am not totally pleased with how we're playing," coach Jacques Lemaire said. "And there's a reason too -- we've been playing a lot of hockey. It is tough for the players. Especially the way it is going, some of the guys are playing over 20 minutes at forward so it is demanding."
Added Kovalchuk: "We were a little tired in the first period and a half, but then we find the legs. We were talking in the room about just putting the puck deep and outwork them. It works, and we didn't give up even after they scored."
The Sharks, playing the fifth of seven straight games away from HP Pavilion, saw their five-game winning streak and 10-game unbeaten streak in regulation both come to an end.
"You don't want to see the streak end, that's for sure," San Jose's Patrick Marleau said. "I think we carried the play a lot of the game and didn't find the back of the net. It's something we wanted to keep going. Now we have to start a new one."
Marleau broke the scoreless stalemate 6:08 into the third period with his 21stt goal of the season. Niclas Wallin sent a wrist shot from the left point to the net, and Marleau was able to outmuscle Devils defenseman Mark Fraser and put home the rebound from the left of Johan Hedberg, who stopped the other 31 shots he faced.
Kovalchuk was at the center of New Jersey's comeback. He helped set up a 4-on-3 advantage with a nifty pass to Anssi Salmela, who drew the second San Jose penalty by driving to the net with the puck.
He then collected the primary assist on the ensuing tying goal at 9:12. Kovalchuk fed Brian Rolston for a blast from the top of the offensive zone. It was a play the team worked on in practice this week to be better prepared for the next 4-on-3 situation, and it paid off.
With time running down, Zajac won a faceoff to the right of San Jose goaltender Antti Niemi back to Kovalchuk. He spun with the puck at the outside edge of the circle and snapped it toward the net.
"You never know what shot is going to go [in] but you try to put it in a spot that is not comfortable for the goalie to make the save," Kovalchuk said. "When you're winning, you usually feel good about your game. It doesn't matter to me who is scoring and who is getting the points. It was totally a team effort and we deserved to win. Moose (Hedberg) gave us an unbelievable effort again. When the goalie plays like that you are comfortable and you go forward."
It was Kovalchuk's 19th goal of the season and fourth in as many games. The win moves New Jersey to within 12 points of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Devils are still several wins away from even being considered on the fringes of the playoff picture, but with Lemaire molding the defense and Kovalchuk finding his scoring touch, there just might be some hope left in a once wayward season.
"We're excited because we're winning," Zajac said. "It is fun to come to the rink. As long as we're competing every night and playing our game, we're going to be fine."
Added Kovalchuk: "That's character. That's when you feel comfortable and you play confident with the puck and without it. You get those bounces. We didn't feel that in the first 30 games, that is for sure."