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Devils top slumping Senators 2-1

by Mike G. Morreale
NEWARK, N.J. --  It isn't often Dainius Zubrus thanks his lucky stars that an attempted pass fails to reach the intended target.

But that was the case on Tuesday when Zubrus connected for his eighth goal of the season off an opportunistic deflection at 14:17 of the third period to give the New Jersey Devils a 2-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators at the Prudential Center.

After taking a feed from Patrik Elias low in the right circle, Zubrus looked to give his linemate a return pass when it appeared he was running out of real estate. Instead, Zubrus' attempt hit the stick blade of Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips before caroming over the left shoulder of goalie Robin Lehner.

"I was looking for Patrik … I wanted to get to puck to him because I thought he beat his defender," Zubrus said. "It was a lucky bounce, but we'll take it. When you look at chances in shots and the way we played, we still earned it."

The victory was the fourth straight on home ice for the Devils, who are 7-1-1 in their last nine games overall. Senators coach Cory Clouston pulled Lehner with 1:01 remaining in the third, but the Devils bottled up the visitors down the stretch.

The Devils outshot the Senators 33-16, but Lehner, who was making only his second NHL start, was splendid in defeat with 31 stops. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur made 15 saves, including 10 in the third, to notch his 11th victory of the season.

"It was a little frustrating because we had some really good chances and (Lehner) was good," Zubrus said. "But sometimes that happens, so you keep skating and keep creating and hopefully one goes in."

Phillips, whose team is now 1-9-4 in its last 14 games, was frustrated in the end.

"That's the way it's been going for us," Phillips said. "I tried to put stick on stick and take the shot away. I think he was trying to pass it across and that's why Robin was coming across as well. It was a tough bounce off the stick and right in. That about sums it up."

Ilya Kovalchuk barely missed giving the Devils their second lead with just 7:02 left in the third when he barreled down his right wing before sweeping in for a wraparound that hit the outside of the left post.

The Devils grabbed a 1-0 lead just 35 seconds into the second when rookie Nick Palmieri lofted a backhand off his own rebound at the left post past Lehner.

"I didn't realize how much time I had on the first one, and the second one I just had to get a little higher," Palmieri said. "I'm just trying to get to the net and most the time the puck is finding me. When you have linemates like (Travis) Zajac and Kovy, you just have to get to the net and that's what I'm doing."

The Senators got even at 5:09 when Alex Kovalev scored his ninth of the season on Ottawa's third shot of the game with eight seconds remaining on a 5-on-3 power play. With Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov in the box for tripping at 3:17, Zubrus was whistled for high-sticking at 4:59, giving the Senators the two-man edge. Kovalev eased his way from the right boards into the slot and slammed home a cross-crease pass by Daniel Alfredsson.

Lehner kept it a one-goal game at 6:16 when he denied Rod Pelley with his left pad off a rocket from the right circle to keep the game even at 1-1. Lehner, who helped lead Team Sweden to a fourth-place showing at the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., last month, had 24 saves through two periods. The 2009 second-round pick (No. 46) confidently played his angles and was square to the shooter on just about every opportunity.

"(Lehner) was good even when there was traffic in front," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire praised. "He a big kid and you can't score on the ice on him. He covers the low net well."

The Devils are 8-8-1 since Lemaire took over for John MacLean as head coach on Dec. 23. With 32 games remaining in the regular season, Lemaire is still in no mood to discuss a possible playoff berth, particularly since New Jersey remains 20-plus points out of a playoff spot.

"We're definitely not a last-place team but we never talk about (playoffs)," Lemaire said. "We got to take it a game at a time and that's it. It's nearly impossible, so why think about it."

Still, there's no denying the fact the Devils are playing a much more controlled, determined game under Lemaire.

"We're just playing the system well," Palmieri said. "We're really working hard in practice, working hard coming out as a unit instead of having guys stretching it out. It's paying off in games and we have more of a balanced attack coming into the zone."

"We've been playing better and we played a lot tighter (against Ottawa) than we did in our last game before the All-Star break (in a loss to Detroit)," Zubrus said. "Jacques mentioned that and he thought we played a better game (Tuesday)."

New Jersey outshot Ottawa 9-2 in a sluggish first period, but the best save of the opening 20 minutes was by made by Brodeur when he snared a snap shot by Kovalev from between the circles with 5:13 remaining.

Lehner's last victory also happened to be his first NHL start on Jan. 13 when he stopped 20 shots in a 6-4 victory over the New York Islanders. It was also the last time the Senators celebrated a victory.

"Robin kept us in it," Phillips said. "After the first 40 minutes we didn't even deserve to have a chance, but we did. We set a goal of winning the third period. We came hard, had a lot of chances (outshooting the Devils, 10-8), played more the way we wanted to for the entire game and it didn't come for us and they got the late one."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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