Ilya Kovalchuk chose an impossible angle for his game-winning goal. The Devils left wing set himself up below the left circle, leaving little room along the near post. It’s not a shot most players would take, and even fewer can turn it into a goal. Kovalchuk isn’t one of them. He took a diagonal pass from Marek Zidlicky, burying the puck past Michal Neuvirth to lift the New Jersey Devils over the Washington Capitals, 3-2, tonight at the Prudential Center.
Stephen Gionta and Patrik Elias also scored for New Jersey, who move to 3-0 for the first time since the 2002-03 season. That year, the Devils won their third championship in franchise history, defeating the Anaheim Ducks in seven games. Kovalchuk knew he needed to elevate the sharp angle shot to have a chance to score.
“I knew that he (Neuvirth) was going to take low then if he slides,” Kovalchuk said. “I knew I just needed to get it up, and I hoped he was real tired. That’s why he didn’t save it.”
Despite the tough angle, Devils coach Pete DeBoer didn’t doubt Kovalchuk’s shot selection.
“If it’s on Kovy’s stick, the angle is fine,” he said.
The Devils rallied for the win after a powerplay opportunity in the extra session. That got their offense back on track, and it took spectacular saves from Neuvirth to keep New Jersey off the board. Neuvirth finished with 32 saves in the loss, his second in as many games.
New Jersey was in control for most of the final period, but a couple of penalties in the final 10 minutes of regulation opened the door for the Capitals comeback. It started with a Mike Ribeiro powerplay tally. With two Devils in the box and extra space on the ice, Washington took advantage. Mike Green sent a pass to Joel Ward in the right circle, who immediately sent the puck across the slot to Ribeiro. The Capitals center, wide open on the far post, tucked the puck into the back of the net for his first goal of the season.
Brodeur hadn’t allowed a goal since the Devils season opener on Saturday against the New York Islanders, a streak of five-plus periods. He finished tonight with 26 saves.
Mike Green tied it with 2:56 remaining in regulation. David Clarkson failed to clear the puck from the Devils zone, sending it right to the stick of Green. The Capitals defenseman fired a shot that handcuffed Brodeur for his first goal of the season.
That was the first even strength goal allowed by New Jersey this season.
“That’s two games in a row that we took a lot of penalties,” Brodeur said. “I think we have to be careful. We know we have a good penalty kill, but you can’t rely on it to bail you out every single game.”
Brodeur kept New Jersey in the game early in the first period. Washington came out firing, at one point outshooting the Devils 6-1. Green had a point-blank opportunity from the right circle, but Brodeur flashed the pads to knock it away.
“He’s bailed us out a ton, especially early in these games, and that gives you the confidence to get back into it.” Gionta said
“I want to start games right on my toes and quick, being fast out there,” Brodeur said. “You can’t control the types of chances you’re going to get, but it happened I got two good ones I was able to make the saves on.”
Gionta opened the scoring in the first period, giving New Jersey a 1-0 lead at the 13:55 mark. Jacob Josefson carried the puck over the blue line, using a deke to get between Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kundrarek. He sent a pass to an open Gionta in the right circle, who took one stride and buried the shot through the legs of Neuvirth for his first goal of the season.
“I was just trying to get it on net,” Gionta said. “Luckily, the bounce went in for me.”
Elias extended the lead, netting a powerplay goal at the 19:00 mark of the middle frame to push the Devils lead to two. Clarkson started the play, deflecting a point shot from Zidlicky that Neuvirth stopped with the right pad. Elias collected the rebound, firing a shot into the open net for his first goal of the season.
“On a powerplay, 5-on-3, you have to try and get those shots and those opportunities,” Elias said. “It was a good bounce towards me there.”
And even when things fell apart, the Devils refused to quit.
“I thought we did a great job rebounding,” Gionta said. “Right after they scored that second goal, I thought we got right back to our game. And that helped us get the extra point tonight.”
Elias recorded two points tonight, passing Kirk Mueller as the team’s all-time point leader against the Capitals. When told after the game about the milestone, he had no idea he broke the record. “Stats will come,” he said. “I might look at them when I’m done, and hopefully that’s a long way to go still.”
Brodeur on Kovalchuk’s game-winning goal: “It’s hard,” he said. “As a goalie, you’re almost, ‘All right, good. You’re so far out.’ You just want to make sure he doesn’t bank it off of you, not shoot it right in like he did. It’s impressive. I think Kovy and a lot of the Russian players do have a certain curve that when they shoot the puck, the puck kind of goes up on edge. I guarantee you if you look at slo-mo that puck went in this way (on its edge). It didn’t go in this way (flat).”
Kovalchuk played over 30 minutes tonight, joining Green as the only two skaters to top the 30 minute mark.