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Zajac OT goal helps Devils hold off Leafs

by Dan Rosen
NEWARK, N.J. --  Travis Zajac called it the perfect design and the perfect set-up. The New Jersey Devils had been practicing their 4-on-3 power play for a few weeks, but until Friday they hadn't gotten the chance to set up the box and look for the open one-timer.

Now they know it works, quite well in fact. They just didn't want to find out this way.

Zajac scored the overtime winner in Friday's 5-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Prudential Center, giving the Devils the two points they were seeking against the 14th-place team in the Eastern Conference. However, they had to win it in overtime because they surrendered a two-goal lead in the final 5:01 of regulation.

So, yes, the Devils, who were averaging just two goals per game in January, broke out of their prolonged offensive slump against the League's 30th-ranked defense. But they still went to bed Friday night with some lingering questions and a somewhat bitter taste.

"We're happy we won and we're happy we put up five, but I think us giving up that two-goal lead late in the game, it's something we don't want to make a habit of," said Devils left wing Zach Parise, who scored two goals in the first period and could have had about five more if it weren't for the Leafs goalies Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala robbing him. "It's pretty uncharacteristic of us to do that, but you have to give them credit. I think they started to play a lot better and they started putting the pressure on us a lot."

The Devils went on the 4-on-3 power play with 1:08 left in overtime when Luke Schenn hauled down Zajac and was sent off for hooking.

Zajac, Parise, Dainius Zubrus and Brian Rolston worked the puck around in a box, waiting for the one-timer to open up. After sending the puck low to Parise, Zajac floated into the right circle and immediately got the puck back in position for the one-timer.

Zubrus acted as the screen in front and actually jumped so the shot could go under him. The puck squeezed through Toskala's five-hole with 45.5 seconds left in overtime.

"I'm just blasting," said Zajac, who added three assists and was the game's first star. "It looked like there were a lot of bodies in front and I just wanted to get it through everyone and see if it could squeak through and it did."

Elated with the goal, Zajac was still quick to point out it's not exactly the way the Devils wanted this one to go down.

"But it happens and the main thing is we came back and battle back," he said.

They had to because Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan beat Devils goalie Martin Brodeur (25 saves) to send what looked like a relatively easy New Jersey victory into overtime.

Ponikarovsky scored at 14:59 of the third after Bryce Salvador turned the puck over on a blind pass from behind Brodeur to the front of the net. The hulking Leafs winger picked off the puck and quickly beat Brodeur, who was basically defenseless on the play.

Stajan made it 4-4 with 1:31 remaining in regulation when he put home a rebound of Tomas Kaberle's shot from the left point. Neither of the Devils defensemen, Johnny Oduya nor Andy Greene, cleared Stajan out of the slot.

"It gave them some life, definitely," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said of Salvador's giveaway. "Still, we should be more intense on the puck, skate a little more. If you look at our game, we had six or seven guys up front playing as good as they could."

Specifically Parise, Zubrus and Zajac, who made up the Devils' revamped No. 1 line for the first two periods and combined for three straight goals after Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson opened the scoring with his first NHL goal 6:11 into the game.

Parise scored twice in the first period, including his 24th of the season that came just 59 seconds after Gunnarsson's goal. Both of his goals came off of gaffes made by Toronto defenseman Ian White in the defensive zone.

Zubrus, playing in only his third game since sitting out 30 in a row with a broken right kneecap, scored his first goal since Oct. 29 at 9:22 of the second period. It came off a 2-on-1 with Zajac and Zubrus had a wide open net to shoot at because Gustavsson had fallen down on his way across the crease.

"I think I stuck with my skate something in the ice so I fell down there," said Gustavsson, who stopped 16 of 19 shots. "It's too bad they scored, but sometimes it happens. The players, they fall and sometimes I fall, too."

Wilson didn't blame Gustavsson for any of the three goals he allowed. He was also happy with the switch to Toskala, who stopped nine of 10 shots before overtime. However, he bemoaned the fact that the Leafs couldn't get the timely save they needed in overtime.

"We didn't get the job done on the penalty kill and we didn't get a save," Wilson said. "We battled back for a point and I was confident we'd get it to a shootout and get another point."

Leafs pugilist Colton Orr, doing his best Bobby Orr impression, went out of character and scored only his second goal of the season on a pretty breakaway to slice the Devils' lead to 3-2 with 5:19 to play in the second period.

However, New Jersey rookie right wing Patrick Davis netted his first NHL goal less than three minutes later to stake the Devils to their two-goal cushion again.

All was going well for New Jersey in the third period until Salvador's brutal turnover. The Leafs picked up some confidence and eventually picked up a point.

The Devils, though, got the two they needed in an uncharacteristic way.

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