With only 34.7 seconds left in regulation and down one goal, it appeared the Atlanta Thrashers (29-29-12) tied the game. But it was ruled Evander Kane tipped the puck in with a high stick, disallowing the goal.
The call sealed a win for New Jersey, who went on the beat the Thrashers, 4-2, tonight at the Prudential Center.
The win moved the Devils into 10th place in the Eastern Conference. They moved within six points of the Buffalo Sabres for eight place.
Rookie Jacob Josefson played hero, scoring the game-winning goal at 4:14 of the third period. Mattias Tedenby started the play, forcing a turnover behind the Thrashers net. The rookie right-winger passed the puck to Josefson in the slot. The Devils' center sent a low wrist shot between the pads of Ondrej Pavelec for his second goal of the season.
Holding the lead proved to be an adventure for New Jersey.
Martin Brodeur had to make a sprawling save to stop Blake Wheeler with just under a minute left in regulation. Then, seconds after the disallowed goal, Brodeur stoned Bryan Little on a rebound chance in the crease.
With 17 seconds left in regulation, Kovalchuk sealed the victory with an empty net goal, his 26th of the season.
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire agreed with the referees call on the disallowed goal.
The Devils entered tonight's game having not allowed a first period goal in their past 16 games. In the span of 65 seconds, their NHL record streak was history.
Tim Stapleton opened the scoring, giving the Thrashers a 1-0 lead at 15:24 of the first period. Kane spun along the side boards and passed the puck to the slot. Stapleton tipped the puck past a diving Brodeur for his third goal of the season.
Chris Thorburn extended the lead to 2-0 at 16:29 of the opening period. Thorburn carried the puck behind the net, and curled around near the goal line. He shot the puck through the legs of Henrik Tallinder and through the arm of Brodeur for his eighth goal of the season.
Travis Zajac cut the lead to 2-1 with 1:08 left in the first period. David Clarkson started the play, passing the puck from behind the net to Mark Fayne at the point. The defenseman fired a puck that Zajac deflected past Pavelec for his 13th goal of season.
Patrik Elias tied the game, 2-2, at 5:10 of the second period, by finishing off a 3-on-2 feed from Brian Rolston. The play started in the Devils zone when Blake Wheeler misfired on a pass to Andrew Ladd. The puck came to the left wing boards, where Elias picked up the puck and started the rush, moving into the Thrashers zone on the right wing. He passed the puck to Rolston, who was trailing the play. Rolston fed the puck back to Elias, who one-timed the puck past Pavelec for his 16th goal of the season.
The Devils win continued their impressive second half run. On January 8, the team sat 27 points out of playoff position. With their win tonight, they moved within six points of a playoff spot. They moved above .500 for the first time all season.
"We've talked about it for a few weeks now. This is pretty amazing what we accomplished," Brodeur told Gultti. "I think we got ourselves in a fun situation that every game counts now. Thirty, forty games ago we were like, 'How are we going to play the second half? Kill time and finish the season?' We were able to turn it around. We're definitely a long ways from where we want to be, but at least now every game counts and it's fun. We come to the rink and we're getting ourselves prepared and the next tow weeks are big for us."
The Devils won the season series, 3-1...Kovalchuk clipped skates with Eric Boulton in the third period and went back to the bench. He didn't miss a shift and said he was ok after the game...Josefson scored goals in consecutive games for the first time in his career.
Despite the New Jersey Devils (32-32-4) outstanding play of late, they haven't made up much ground in the NHL Eastern Conference standings.
Tonight, they can inch closer to a playoff berth by defeating the Atlanta Thrashers (29-28-12) at the Prudential Center.
With a win, the Devils would pass the Thrashers and move into a tie for 10th-place with the Toronto Maple Leafs. New Jersey has won two of the three match-ups with Atlanta this season.
Travis Zajac played hero in the last game, scoring an overtime winner for a 3-2 victory on Friday. Zajac connected on a power-play opportunity, converting a feed from Patrik Elias for his second goal of the game.
Zajac will look to tie Ken Daneyko's team record for consecutive games played tonight. The center will play in his 388th straight game tonight.
Despite their torrid 22-3-2 streak, New Jersey hasn't found much room to move up the standings. On February 21, the Devils were 10 points away from a playoff berth. Despite their 7-2-0 record since then, they still remain eight points out of the playoffs.
Atlanta, who entered the All-Star break in solid playoff position, has struggled the second half of the season. A mixture of injuries and inconsistent play sunk them, knocking Atlanta out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
Martin Brodeur will start tonight for the Devils. The future Hall-of-Famer has started New Jersey's last seven games, going 6-1-0 with a 1.51 goals-against average. He stopped 24 shots in Friday's win over Atlanta.
The Devils defense, much-maligned during the team's first half struggles, turned around during their run. The team extended their modern NHL record of 16 straight games without allowing a first period goal. That doesn't bode well for Atlanta, which has scored in the first period in just one of their previous nine games.
The Devils last nine games were decided by one goal, and their previous two wins were overtime victories.
Playoff Tracker 2011
While the Devils continue their incredible run toward the playoffs, they will continue scoreboard watching to see the results of those teams ahead of them. Here are the games directly affecting the Devils playoff chances tonight:
New York Islanders at New York Rangers (7 p.m., MSG) - While the Isles are still on the fringe of the playoff race, the Rangers are the more important team in this match-up. The Devils' rivals sit in eighth place, eight points ahead of the Devils for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Carolina Hurricanes at Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m., HSBC Arena) - It's too bad someone has to earn points from this game. Both the Hurricanes and Sabres sit ahead of the Devils in the standings. Carolina currently holds the ninth position in the conference, four points ahead of New Jersey. Buffalo sits seventh in the conference, eight points ahead of the Devils. The worst-case scenario is both teams earn a point in tonight's game.