When the New Jersey Devils struggled through a 12-game stretch, the team constantly repeated the same message – continue working within the system, and the wins would come.
Tonight, New Jersey took a big step forward in that direction.
The Devils (13-9-5) defeated the rival Philadelphia Flyers, 5-2, tonight at the Prudential Center. It was another step in the right direction for New Jersey, who have won three of their last four and strengthened its hold on the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
“During the [six-game] losing streak, I thought we played well enough to win some of those games,” Devils head coach Pete DeBoer said. “For different reasons, some of them didn’t go our way. We felt if we would just stick with it, try to keep a positive outlook, it would turn, and it has.”
Adam Henrique recorded his first multi-goal game for the Devils, finishing with a team leading three points. Patrik Elias, Andrei Loktionov and Ilya Kovalchuk scored once for New Jersey, who treated a sellout crowd to a breakout offensive performance. The Devils last scored five goals on February 13 in a 5-2 win over the Flyers at the Prudential Center.
“We haven’t had many nights like that in the last two months,” DeBoer said. “It was nice to score, it was nice to get Heddy a win and have a game like that. It was a nice change.”
Johan Hedberg posted a resurgent effort, finishing with 23 saves for his second straight win. The Devils netminder made several quality saves, including a pair to frustrate the Flyers in the first period. With Philadelphia on the power play, Hedberg stopped Danny Briere’s blast from the top of the right circle. The rebound came out to Simon Gagne in the left circle, and Hedberg made a sliding right pad stop on his shot.
“I felt confident, but it also comes from the way we play in front of me,” he said of his performance. “There was no guessing tonight. We stayed aggressive and were coming back hard, not [allowing] too many odd man rushes. That allowed me to play my game.”
Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell scored for Philadelphia (12-15-1), who dropped six points behind New Jersey in the standings. They sit three points behind the New York Rangers for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, but have played three more games than New York.
Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalvov, who said this series would make or break the season, finished with 27 saves.
“We knew we were going to get their ‘A’ game,” DeBoer said. “We knew we had no choice but to show up and match that.”
The Devils came out of the gate ready to play, swarming the Flyers with a successful forecheck from the drop of the puck. It paid off quickly, as Elias gave New Jersey a 1-0 lead at 2:02 of the first period.
Henrique stripped Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros behind the net. He sent a pass to Steve Bernier, who’s shot from the left circle was blocked in front. Elias took the rebound and sent a backhand shot past Bryzgalov for his ninth goal of the season.
Philadelphia responded, tying the game on Voracek’s power-play goal. The Flyers right wing snuck down from the point, taking a Wayne Simmonds pass from the right post. All alone in the right circle, Voracek shot the puck into an empty net for his 13th goal of the season.
That would be the Flyers only response of the night. Just 36 seconds later, Henrique broke the tie.
The Devils center carried the puck over the Flyers blue line, stopping near the face off dot in the right circle. Bryzgalov made a save on his shot from the circle, but left a rebound that deflected off the skate of Matt Read in front.
Hedberg was credited with an assist on the go-ahead goal, his first since 2010-11.
“The whole team has really played well,” Henrique said “We just stick to our systems here and keep pushing. Those bounces are going to turn around, and we’re getting opportunities. Tonight, the entire game just came together for us.”
Kovalchuk stretched the lead to 3-1 with a shorthanded goal late in the first period. Stephen Gionta began the play, chipping the puck past Mezaros at the point. Kovalchuk raced ahead, taking the loose puck and breaking in alone on Bryzgalov. He beat the Flyers goalie over the glove for his career-high fourth shorthanded goal of the season.
Kovalchuk sits two away from John MacLean’s record of six shorthanded goals during the 1990-2000 season.
New Jersey kept pouring on the offense in the second period, outshooting the Flyers despite holding a two-goal lead.
Loktionov extended the lead to 4-1 in the second period. Alexei Ponikarovsky’s breakout pass gave New Jersey a two-on-one rush. Loktionov carried the puck over the Flyers blue line on the left side, with Kovalchuk on his right. He fooled Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn, forcing the defenseman down to the ice to defend against a pass. Loktionov held the puck and did a toe-drag around Coburn before firing a wrist shot past Bryzgalov’s blocker for his fourth goal of the season.
“He’s a smart player,” Kovalchuk said of his linemate. “He makes the good plays and doesn’t panic with the puck. It was a good decision [to not pass] and a great move by him. It’s a great goal.”
Henrique tied his career high with his second of the game in the third period. He finished off a nice passing play with Marek Zidlicky and Loktionov for his ninth goal of the season. The Devils center beat Bryzgalov with a backhand shot over his glove.
Hartnell scored his second of the season with less than four minutes remaining in regulation. Voracek carried the puck over the Devils line with Hartnell on his left side. Voracek sent Hartnell the puck, and he put his shot over a diving Hedberg for his second goal of the season.
Despite breaking out of its scoring slump, New Jersey wants to finish off the Flyers in the second game of the home-and-home series Friday.
“It’s great to win the one game, but I don’t think we’re the team that has a mindset that we’re happy to split with anybody,” DeBoer said. “We know it’s not going to be easy. There’s going to be some push back from them. It’s [the Wells Fargo Center] a tough building to to go into. I think we can play better than we did tonight.”
Krys Barch and Elias both briefly went to the locker room after third period hits. Elias lost an edge skating into the slot and crashed into the end boards behind the Flyers net. He went to the locker room, but said after the game it was to check his skates.
Barch was hit from behind by Dany Briere in the right corner of the Devils zone. No penalty was called, but Barch laid on the ice for several seconds before skating to the locker room under his own power. He returned in the third period, and said Briere apologized to him for the hit. Barch would not say if the hit was illegal.
“I guess if you apologize, you did something wrong,” he said.
Elias has goals in three of the last four games. He is one behind David Clarkson, who leads the team with 10 goals.
New Jersey has played well within its division this season. The Devils are 8-1-2 against Atlantic Division opponents, including a perfect 3-0-0 mark against the Flyers.
New Jersey announced before the game they signed Reid Boucher to an entry-level contract. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Boucher, New Jersey’s fourth round (99th overall) in the 2011 draft, will join the organization after spending two years with the Sarnia Sting. The right wing leads the Ontario Hockey League with 62 goals. He broke Steven Stamkos team record for goals in a season (58).
The Michigan native attended training camp with New Jersey in 2011 and Albany’s camp last fall.