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Zajac's power-play goal lifts Devils in overtime

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- Travis Zajac said the New Jersey Devils' power play was their Achilles' heel in their most recent loss.

In a 3-2 overtime victory over the Thrashers on Friday in which all three goals came with the man advantage, it was more like Hercules' muscles.

The Devils went for variety: They scored once 5-on-3, once 5-on-4 and finally 4-on-3. Zajac netted the first and the last of those, the final one coming with 41.3 seconds left in the extra period as he converted a pass from Patrik Elias down low. It was the Devils' first game of the season in which they scored three power-play goals.

"Tonight it won us the game," Zajac said.

By rebounding from Tuesday's 2-1 loss to Ottawa, the Devils kept their improbable surge alive and the story of their season the stuff of some heroic Greek myth. They are 21-3-2 in their last 26 games and pulled to within eight points of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot with 15 games to play.

Atlanta, which led twice and failed to score on their own 4-on-3 power play in overtime, tied idle Toronto for 10th in the East with 68 points with 14 games to play. The Thrashers pulled within four of Carolina, a 2-1 loser to Washington on Friday, for ninth, and are six out of the final playoff spot.

Goalie Martin Brodeur earned the win for the Devils with 24 saves, a number of them key ones during that overtime penalty kill with Mark Fayne off for tripping Blake Wheeler. First came a glove save on Thrashers' All-Star defenseman Tobias Enstrom, who ripped a slap shot with a clear shooting lane. Then Brodeur was able to get a glove on a wrist shot from Nik Antropov at the right circle, deflecting a puck over the crossbar that was labeled for over his shoulder.

Finally, just after the penalty expired, he stopped Wheeler, who had scored earlier, kicking the rebound into the right corner to defenseman Andy Greene, who started the Devils' breakout. Along the wall, Atlanta's Evander Kane tripped Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov with 66 seconds left in overtime, setting up Zajac's second goal.

"I took a late penalty and that's on me and they scored," the 19-year-old Kane said.

Brodeur put the Devils' epic chase in perspective.

"We're a little far yet to really feel that we can make it," he said of the playoffs. "We're going to take it step by step and eventually, hopefully, we'll get to a point that it might be doable to get in the playoffs."

New Jersey tied the game with 12:09 left in regulation, as ex-Thrasher Ilya Kovalchuk scored on a rebound for a power-play goal with Enstrom in the penalty box for hooking. Kovalchuk knocked a rebound into an empty cage and then pounded the glass behind the net. Enstrom had to restrain Mattias Tedenby to prevent him from getting a breakaway, drawing the penalty.

Kovalchuk said it didn't matter to him that the win came against a team where he had played for almost eight seasons until the Thrashers traded him to the Devils last February when they were unable to sign him to a contract extension.

"It was a big goal for us," said Kovalchuk, who assisted on the game-winner. "All points are huge for us."

Then, focusing on the big prize, he said, "I don't really care about Atlanta. We're chasing the Rangers and Carolina."

Earlier in the third, the Thrashers' Dustin Byfuglien earned his 20th goal, tops among League defensemen, on the power play with David Clarkson in the box for slashing. Antropov fell into Brodeur at the top of the crease but the officials ruled that Colin White had pushed him. Both Brodeur and Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said they thought the goal should have been disallowed for goaltender interference.

"I guess we came out winning, so it's not too bad," Brodeur said. "It's easier to digest when you win the game."

For more than the first half of the game, the two teams played scoreless hockey. Atlanta finally broke the deadlock at 10:14 of the second period. The breakout started on a fluky play, with a pass by a Thrasher hitting the skate of Dainius Zubrus as he was leaving the ice and jumping over the boards on a line change. The play continued on and morphed into a 3-on-2. From the left side, Andrew Ladd found Wheeler all alone on the right wing and Wheeler beat Brodeur just inside the post before Brodeur could get across with his glove. It was Wheeler's fourth goal in the last seven games.

New Jersey tied the game 2:13 later on a two-man advantage. First, Enstrom was called for interference after he whiffed on a shot in the offensive zone and had to prevent the Devils' Nick Palmieri from starting an odd-man rush. Then, just eight seconds into that penalty, Chris Thorburn took a high-sticking penalty, as he almost knocked Zajac's helmet off with his stick.

Before New Jersey scored, ex-Devil defenseman Johnny Oduya twice had a chance to clear the zone but failed. In the end, Elias fed a goalmouth pass from down low to Zajac who banged one in high over Ondrej Pavelec before the goalie could get from side to side.

"You have to play smarter," said Pavelec (27 saves), who preserved the 2-2 tie with 3:27 left in regulation when he gloved Tedenby's wrist shot on a 2-on-1 break. "We did not play smart enough to win the game."

Zajac's game winner was similar to his first goal. Elias again earned the primary assist -- Lemaire said he liked how the Devils attacked the net -- sending a pass across from down low and, with his stick near his skate, the puck deflected off Zajac into the net before he could shoot it for his 12th of the season.

Zajac commented on the fact that neither of his goals were clean.

"It was kind of lucky there," Zajac said. "That's how it goes sometimes."
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