NEW YORK -- Fans of the New Jersey Devils thinking about trying to map out the team's Stanley Cup parade route through downtown Newark after the team acquired Ilya Kovalchuk might want to hold off on taking that personal day in early June.
The Devils marched right into the blue wall of Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, losing to their cross-river rivals 3-1 just one night after a stirring comeback victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Kovalchuk's debut.
Brilliant doesn't begin to describe Lundqvist's performance on this night. He made 41 saves, many of them of the highlight-reel variety with his catching glove, and eight of them against Kovalchuk, who was held off the scoresheet after his two-assist game on Friday night.
Lundqvist's outstanding showing helped the Rangers win for just the second time in nine games and thrust them into a tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with the Philadelphia Flyers. Many of Lundqvist's best saves came while the game was scoreless in the early going, allowing his team the opportunity to drive a stake through the Devils with three rapid-fire goals midway through the second period.
"I try to stay focused because if they get an early one, the game can change really fast," Lundqvist said. "As soon as you get a goal, I know how it works for us, when you get a goal you get a lot of energy and the game can totally change."
Three goals in a 2:39 span by Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury whipped the Garden fans into a frenzy during the second period, and Lundqvist made the lead stand up from there. Dainius Zubrus' goal in the third period was the only blemish against Lundqvist, who was pelted with 20 shots during the final 20 minutes.
"He played very well. He made some good saves early," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "When they mounted on us in the third period, he made some great saves. … Henrik is the backbone. He played very well tonight."
Lundqvist's best save came in the third period against Devils defenseman Mike Mottau, who crept down from the point and had his shot toward a mostly empty net plucked out of the air by Lundqvist's catching glove.
"He's always good," Callahan said. "Look at his numbers against all teams, and I'm sure they're pretty good. It's a big rivalry. Obviously everybody in the room gets pretty jacked up playing against them. I think Hank was."
The last time Devils goalie Martin Brodeur played here, on Jan. 12, he put forth the best regular-season effort of his career by stopping 51 shots in a 1-0 shootout victory against Lundqvist, who turned away 45 shots to earn a shutout of his own.
But Brodeur was far from perfect in allowing three goals on 25 shots Saturday. He appeared to hurt himself while sliding from left to right in the third period, but he said afterward he just banged his right knee on the ice and was OK.
Kovalchuk looked to be more in rhythm in his second game with the Devils despite not registering a point. He played mostly on a line with Zubrus and Patrik Elias, who was playing in his first game after sitting out three weeks with a concussion. Kovalchuk didn't get a point on Zubrus' goal at 11:11 of the third period, but his big hit behind the Rangers net helped start the play that led to the score.
Elias sung the praises of Kovalchuk after the game.
"He's a smart player. He's moving to the right places," Elias said. "Even when he doesn't have the puck the other team has to watch him. I thought we were making good plays. We played well as a line."
And the feeling was mutual.
"He's a great playmaker," Kovalchuk said of Elias. "It's his first game back, but we need a couple games to get chemistry. It's just very enjoyable to get to play with those kind of players.
The Kovalchuk-Zubrus-Elias line combined for 13 shots, many of them excellent scoring chances that were denied by Lundqvist.
"I think he's getting better and better," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said of Kovalchuk. "He's getting close to what he was playing before."
Despite all the great scoring chances Kovalchuk generated, the moment fans might remember most was his scrap withSean Avery with 2:16 left in the third period. During a stoppage, Avery said something that raised the ire of Kovalchuk, and the two tussled. Kovalchuk dropped his gloves while Avery did not, but they were both given double minors for roughing.
With the Devils in desperate of need of two goals to tie the score, they were without their biggest offensive threat when they needed him most. But Lemaire and the Devils to a man said they couldn't get upset with Kovalchuk for losing his cool in that critical moment.
Kovalchuk chalked it up to "emotions" and said he's looking forward to facing Avery again -- the Devils and Rangers meet twice more during the regular season and potentially again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"That time I should stay away from that, but we have a lot of great players who can do some damage in front," Kovalchuk said when asked if he should have ignored Avery. "I heard it's a big rivalry, and now I know it. I'm very excited that we've got a couple more games against each other. It's real hockey."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter at: @DLozoNHL