The struggles for the New Jersey Devils were summed up in one play Sunday night.
Trailing in the third period, the Devils had a perfect scoring chance. Winnipeg Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec was on his back in the crease, with a mass of bodies around him. Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey covered the puck and threw it right to Marek Zidlicky in the slot. The Devils defenseman put the puck into the open net, breathing life into an otherwise cold Devils squad.
The spark quickly died. Referee Mike Leggo whistled the play dead right before the shot, disallowing the goal. A short review upheld the decision, and the Devils couldn’t muster another scoring chance.
New Jersey (10-5-4) went on to lose to Winnipeg (8-9-1), 4-2, in the first game of a home-and-home series with the Jets.
“If you’re going to put yourself at the mercy of the referees late in the game, than it’s your own fault,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “We put ourselves in that spot.”
It was the first win for Winnipeg in New Jersey since 2009, when the team was the Atlanta Thrashers. It also dropped New Jersey to 2-4-1 in it’s last seven games.
“Every team is going to go through adversity,” DeBoer said. “We know to handle that, we know we’re going to come out the other end of it. We just have to stick with it.”
The Jets top line recorded five points, and four different players scored for Winnipeg. The Jets are 4-1-0 in its last five road games.
Johan Hedberg, pressed into service after Martin Brodeur left warm-ups with a back injury, stopped 23 shots in his third straight loss. He’s allowed at least four goals in his last three starts.
“We’re not losing games because of Johan Hedberg,” DeBoer said. “We’ve gone dry offensively and the other teams have been opportunistic.”
Winnipeg, one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL, scored three unanswered goals over the final two periods.
Trailing, 2-1, after the first period, Grant Clitsome tied the game with a power-play goal at 13:01 of the middle period. The Jets defenseman received a pass from Paul Postma at the right point. With plenty of room in front, he skated to the top of the right circle. His shot hit the glove of Hedberg, but beat the Devils goalie for Clitsome’s second goal of the season.
“It hit my glove,” Hedberg said. ”It wasn’t strong enough to keep it. It rolled through, and it went in.”
It was the 13th power-play goal New Jersey has allowed in their last 10 games and changed the momentum of the game.
“Our special teams, early in the year, were providing us with some momentum,” DeBoer said. “Now, they’re taking some away.”
Evander Kane capitalized on a Devils turnover, scoring the eventual game-winning goal at 17:48 of the middle period. Adam Larsson held the puck at the Jets blue line before trying to send a pass to the slot. Alexander Burmistrov stole the puck, quickly breaking out of his own end. He tapped the puck up to Kane, who skated his away around a diving Hedberg. Kane tapped the puck into the open net for his seventh goal of the season.
Andrew Ladd capped the scoring in the third period, converting on another Devils turnover to stretch the lead to 4-2.
Wheeler blocked a clearing attempt from Zidlicky along the side boards, and Little collected the loose puck. He worked the puck Ladd in the left circle, and the Jets left wing put his shot over Hedberg’s shoulder for his tenth goal of the season.
Both teams entered the game struggling to score in the first period, but found the back of the net in the opening period.
Zach Bogosian opened the scoring just 2:30 into regulation, giving the Jets the early lead.
Wheeler skated the puck into the left circle, leaving a pass for the trailing Bogosian. He skated to the slot, sending his shot past the blocker of Hedberg for his first goal of the season.
It was the fifth straight game Winnipeg scored the first goal of a game.
Travis Zajac and Steve Bernier responded, putting New Jersey ahead, 2-1, after the first period.
Zajac broke a four-game point streak with his game-tying goal. David Clarkson started the play, chipping a puck off the side boards to Patrik Elias. The Devils left wing sped through the neutral zone on a two-on-one with Zajac. He found the Devils center with a pass, and Zajac put his shot past the glove of Pavelec for his fourth goal of the season.
Bernier put the Devils ahead, 2-1, at 17:10 of the opening period. He collected a loose puck behind the Jets net, sending a pass to Andrei Loktionov along the side boards. The Devils center sent it right back to Bernier at the right post. He stuffed his shot past the skate of Pavelec for his fifth goal of the season.
The Devils right wing, on the ice for the no-goal in the third period, refused to blame the officials.
“In my mind, it’s a penalty or something,” he said. “We’re not going to make any excuses. That would have been a very important play of us. But we didn’t lose the game because of that play.
“We had success last year, and it wasn’t just by flowing. We had a system, and we were focused on what we had to do on the ice. We do it most of the time on the ice. But there’s a few times we forget about it, and it costs us some goals.”
Brodeur’s Back Injury
Brodeur began his post game press conference with a joke, telling the assorted media in the Devils locker room “I didn’t even play today.”
That’s why so many waited for him after the game.
The Devils goalie said his back was sore, and he pulled himself out during warm-ups for precautionary reasons. It’s an issue he’s dealt with for the last few games.
“Today, I thought it was going to be fine,” Brodeur said. “The warm up didn’t feel good enough, I didn’t feel 100 percent, so I pulled myself out.”
Brodeur didn’t know when the injury happened. He said he might have tweaked his back during practice.
“I didn’t feel strong enough to be able to handle if somebody would have hit me or if I had to stretch out like crazy,” he said.
He was confident the injury wouldn’t be long-term.
“Everything should be fine. I don’t think it’s a big deal,” he said. “I don’t think anybody around here is worried about it.”
Brodeur said that, if anything happened to Hedberg during today’s game, he could have played.
Loktionov extended his point streak to a career-high three games with his assist in the first period.
Elias tied Evgeni Malkin for fourth in the NHL with assists (17). The left wing leads New Jersey in points (22) and assists.
Hedberg started consecutive games for the first time since November 12-15, 2011, when he started two straight games.
Winnipeg scored its first ever power-play goal against the New Jersey Devils. They went 0-for-8 on the power play in four meetings with New Jersey last season.