The Devils' left-winger scored the game winning goal in the third period to help the Devils defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning (37-19-7), 2-1, tonight at the Prudential Center.
Kovalchuk broke a 1-1 tie at 10:10 of the final period. Travis Zajac sent a pass from the right circle to Kovalchuk, who was in the slot. The left-winger fired a one-timer over Dwayne Roloson's shoulder for his 22nd goal of the season.
It was his fifth game-winning goal in the past 11 games and helped move New Jersey past the idle Florida Panthers for the 12th seed in the Eastern Conference.
The win was New Jersey's 18th in their last 22 games, and snapped the Lightning's three-game win streak.
Dominic Moore scored the game's first goal 4:41 into the second period. With Tampa Bay on the powerplay, Pavel Kubina skated the puck from the slot to the right circle. His shot went through the legs of Steve Downie and deflected off Moore's left skate. A video review upheld the call, giving Moore his 11th goal of the season.
Henrik Tallinder tied the game, 1-1, with 1:15 remaining in the middle frame. Kovalchuk started the play, leading the rush into the Lightning zone. He left the puck for Mark Fayne at the right point, and the defenseman fired the puck on Roloson. The Lightning goalie made the stop, but Kovalchuk moved the puck back to Tallinder. The Devils' defenseman settled the puck and fired a shot that deflected off Martin St. Louis and past Roloson for the goal.
The win moved the Devils within nine points of the Carolina Hurricanes for the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey has 19 games to make up the deficit.
Tonight was the Devils' fifth straight home win...Zach Parise, out with an injured knee for most of the season, was cleared by doctors to begin light skating activities. There is no timetable for his return...Newly-acquired David Steckel played 13:33 in his Devils debut.
New Jersey, who struggled earlier at home this season, will look for a five-game home win streak tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning (37-18-7).
The Devils, who traded away center Jason Arnott Monday, are still pushing toward the playoffs. New Jersey, 17-2-2 in their last 21 games, rocketed from last place in the league to 13th in the Eastern Conference. Entering tonight's game, they sit 11 points out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Despite being out of the playoff picture, the players believe management showed faith in the team's ability to complete their miracle comeback.
The Devils won't grab two easy points from the Lightning. Tampa Bay has won its last three road games, the most recent a 2-1 win against the New York Rangers. Tied 1-1 in the third period, Vincent Lecavlier scored the game-winning goal during a 5-on-3 powerplay situation. The win gave Tampa Bay a 21-3-7 record in one-goal games.
New Jersey has had Tampa's number in recent years. They've won eight of their last nine against the Lightning, including two of three this season.
The Lightning won the last matchup, 2-1, Friday night at the St. Pete Times Forum. Martin St. Louis and Simon Gagne scored second period goals to put Tampa Bay ahead, 2-0, after two periods. Mark Fayne brought the Devils to within one, but they couldn't crack Dwayne Roloson in the final minutes of regulation.
It's still undecided who will start tonight's game. Martin Brodeur, who stopped 25 shots in a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers Sunday, holds a 9-1-0 with a 2.24 goals-against average in his last 10 games against the Lightning. Hedberg has a 1.11 GAA in his last eight starts.