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Kovalchuk?s first Devils goal a game-winner

by Mike G. Morreale

NEWARK , N.J. -- The wait is over in New Jersey. Ilya Kovalchuk has scored a goal.

For the first time in five games with his new team, Kovalchuk was finally able to prove what the fuss was all about when the Devils acquired him in a five-player deal with the Atlanta Thrashers on Feb. 4. His tie-breaking snap shot from between the circles, off a picturesque behind-the-back pass from Patrik Elias, ignited his teammates and the 17,625 in attendance on the way to a 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Friday at PrudentialCenter.

Kovalchuk, the game's first star, finished with two points and a plus-3 rating in 21:51 of ice time.

Following his goal, which gave the Devils a 3-2 lead at 8:24 of the third period, fans tossed their caps onto the ice in celebration despite the fact the newest Devil was two goals shy of a hat trick. It made no difference.

"It was kind of neat, it was kind of a welcome and I appreciate it," said Kovalchuk, who admitted captain Jamie Langenbrunner gave him the puck after the game. "It's nice when the fans are behind you. Scoring that first goal is good. Next time I'll get a hat trick."

Devils coach Jacques Lemaire admitted fans threw their hats on the ice to signify his team finally scoring a collective three goals in a game. He might be right, too. The five-goal outburst was just the second time in seven games that the Devils had scored three or more goals.

"His goal made it three, and that's what the hats were all about," Lemaire said. "It's been a while since we scored three. But I think our top guys were better than their top players. They pretty much all scored and played well. I think we moved the puck better and even got a goal on the power-play."

Zach Parise extended the lead to 4-2 with a power-play goal at 13:08 off assists from Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac before Langenbrunner scored into an empty net with 41.2 seconds left.

"After Kovy scored, the linesman came over and asked if he had missed something -- if he had scored a hat trick," Langenbrunner said. "But the fans are excited to have him here as are we and it's exciting to see him get that first one and it won't be his last."

Things started clicking for the Devils after Lemaire moved Elias to center alongside Kovalchuk and Zubrus.

"I wasn't completely pleased with the way we were going (in the first)," Lemaire said. "I want (Parise) to get more chances (with Zajac and Langenbrunner) and I know (Zubrus) was doing well with (Kovalchuk). A change in the game sometimes makes things click. I thought about the change in earlier games, but didn't do it."

Kovalchuk praised his entire five-man unit on his game-winning goal.

"It was a great job by everyone," he said. "(Langenbrunner) pressured their defense and they turned the puck over and Patty make great play in the middle and I shoot the puck. I expect it (from Elias). You have to know it's coming -- he has 600, 700 points, right? So I always expect a pass from that guy."

Elias and Kovalchuk actually combined for two goals, two assists, a plus-6 rating and 10 shots, including a game-high seven shots by Kovalchuk.

Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, now 5-8-2 in his last 15 games, made 19 saves and Nashville's Pekka Rinne, who blamed himself on the Kovalchuk winner, stopped 23 shots.

"I saw the shot," Rinne told "Kovalchuk was moving laterally, sideways, and just picked a corner and beat me there. There's no excuses. I saw it all the way but just couldn't make the save. I think this is how it's been for us all year, pretty much. We're in tight games and the game sways the other way late. The Kovalchuk goal was big for them and in key moments like that, I have to make those saves. It's a tough one for us."

The victory was the just the fifth in 16 games for the Devils, who travel to Carolina on Saturday in their final game before breaking for the Olympics. The Predators dropped to 1-1-1 on their four-game road trip that concludes Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.

Kovalchuk entered the game having gone without a goal in his previous six contests -- including his first four with the Devils. It was his second longest goal-scoring drought following a nine-game scoreless streak with the Atlanta Thrashers in December 2008.

The Devils pulled into a 2-2 tie 2:30 into the second when Elias scored his first goal in nine games off a rising slap shot from the top of the left circle that beat Rinne to the long side. The Predators had taken a short-lived 2-1 edge just 46 seconds into the second when Jordin Tootoo snapped a screened 35-footer past a surprised Brodeur from between the circles.

Despite being outplayed and outshot 13-7 in the first, the Predators escaped with a 1-1 tie. They actually tied the game at 1-1 with 90 seconds left in the period when Cal O'Reilly took a pass from Colin Wilson from the right circle during a power play and snapped a 10-foot shot over Brodeur's glove from the slot.

Zajac converted a feed from Langenbrunner at 9:49 to give the Devils a 1-0 lead. Langenbrunner made the play happen when he forced Rinne out of his crease at the right post before feeding Zajac at the left hash mark.

The Devils failed to take advantage of a two-man advantage for 1:26 -- maintaining possession of the puck in the Nashville end the entire time but generating just one shot. The Predators entered the game 28th in the League on the penalty-kill. New Jersey finished 1-for-5 for the game and is now 3-for-28 over the last seven contests. Additionally, the Devils are a miserable 2-for-17 this season when awarded a two-man advantage.

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