Kovalchuk scores in return, but Devils lose
It's not often in Rangers-Devils matchups that the team from New Jersey is the one in turmoil.
That was the case Sunday as the Rangers and Devils hit the ice for a second straight night, while heading in different directions.
Michal Rozsival and Ryan Callahan scored second-period goals and the New York Rangers earned their third straight win, beating Ilya Kovalchuk and the slumping Devils 3-1 at Madison Square Garden.
Kovalchuk, in the first season of a 15-year, $100 million US deal, returned to the lineup a night after being benched by coach John MacLean for undisclosed reasons. Kovalchuk didn't play in the Devils' 6-1 home loss to Buffalo and wasn't much of a factor Sunday until he scored with 5:52 remaining to make it 2-1.
Kovalchuk doesn't believe his situation was a distraction for him or his teammates.
"It shouldn't be," he said. "A lot of things happen during a season. Everybody gets a healthy scratch once in a while. It's not a big deal. We just have to stick together."
That has yet to happen. New Jersey lost for the fourth time in five games.
"We knew the pressure was on them with what happened with Kovalchuk, and they've had some tough games lately," Rangers forward Sean Avery said. "It's our building and we've got to set the tone. I certainly think we did that with our first period which we haven't done in a long time."
After failing to score in the first period when they held a 17-10 shots advantage, the Rangers connected twice on 12 attempts in the second.
Kovalchuk, who along with MacLean said the issue between them was resolved, was in the penalty box when Callahan scored the power-play goal that gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead.
Rozsival and Callahan both had an assist, and Brandon Dubinsky scored an empty-net goal with a second left for the Rangers, who returned home after wins at Toronto and Boston. Henrik Lundqvist made 27 saves, but fell a few minutes short of his 25th NHL shutout.
Martin Brodeur stopped 31 shots for New Jersey (2-6-1), which has been outscored 30-15. The Devils' comeback chances were thwarted when Jacob Josefson went off for hooking with 4:10 left, but New Jersey mounted a furious push for the tying goal in the closing minutes that Lundqvist turned aside.
After an 0-2-1 slide following an opening-night win at Buffalo, the Rangers have taken three straight. They are trying to make such spurts the norm one season after missing the playoffs.
"Those other two games don't really mean that much if we come out and stink the joint out at home," Avery said. "We're trying to model ourselves after a team that wins … that's winning three games, four, five games in a row, not only two."
New York killed off the final 1:10 of Avery's high-sticking penalty that bridged the first two periods and grabbed the lead 16 seconds after getting back to full strength.
Brodeur stopped Ruslan Fedotenko's shot, and the puck was worked around to Rozsival at the right point. Rozsival unleashed a drive that struck defenseman Andy Greene, who was guarding Fedotenko at the outside edge of the right circle, and deflected past Brodeur at 1:26.
The Devils couldn't capitalize on three consecutive power plays and were victimized on New York's fourth chance with a man advantage. While Kovalchuk served an interference penalty he received after running over defenseman Dan Girardi in the neutral zone, Callahan netted his first on another deflection.
Dubinsky wound up in the left circle and fired a shot that Callahan tipped in from near the left post at 12:22. New York recorded a power-play goal for the second straight night after not having any in four of its first five games.
Meanwhile, the Devils' struggles continued.
MacLean hasn't been able to get his club in gear during the first nine games of his NHL head coaching career. MacLean is the Devils' career leading scorer, but New Jersey has yet to find its offensive groove. The Devils have scored more than two goals in a game only twice this season, and never more than three.
"We're a pretty talented team but we're missing something right now," Devils forward Zach Parise said. "At times, we are not playing together out there. The effort was there but not the result that we need."
Kovalchuk is being counted on to carry the scoring load, and might be feeling the pressure. Even before his one-game benching, the high-flying forward notched only two goals and five points in seven games. New Jersey is surprisingly at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, one season after winning the Atlantic Division.
The Devils are already in a difficult position and face five straight road games against tough Western Conference opponents — including four on the West Coast.
"You dig yourself into a hole the way we've been playing. You have to claw your way out," Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said.