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Devils slip past unmotivated Penguins

The SportsXchange

NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk didn't know exactly how long it had been since he scored a goal.

"I knew I hadn't scored in a long time," said the New Jersey Devils forward, whose first goal since March 13 lifted the Devils to a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night in New Jersey's final home game of the season. "I knew it was more than a month ago. We were desperate for a win and worked really hard to get it."

Kovalchuk's shoulder injury on March 23 sent the Devils into a 10-game tailspin, a losing streak that eliminated the defending Eastern Conference champions from playoff contention for only the third time in 20 years. The Devils lost every game that Kovalchuk was out of the lineup.

The franchise forward returned four games ago, and the Devils won three of those four, culminating in Thursday's come-from-behind victory, a game New Jersey trailed 2-0 in the late stages of the second period.

Kovalchuk took a fine feed from Steve Sullivan and fired his 11th goal of the season. The puck seemed to deflect off Pittsburgh center Brandon Sutter in front, and it went past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with 6:10 left.

The Devils also got goals from Travis Zajac and David Clarkson after the Penguins scored the game's first two goals, from Matt Cooke in the first period and Jussi Jokinen in the second.

The win enabled the Devils to improve to 19-18-10 overall, 13-9-2 at home.

The Penguins (35-12-0) lost for only the sixth time in their past 26 games.

Johan Hedberg made 16 saves for the Devils in his first start since March 19.

"It was nice for me and the whole team to get a win," Hedberg said. "We were able to give our fans something to cheer about. We're disappointed we're not going to the playoffs, but we wanted to finish as strong as possible. It's about as good of a feeling we can ask for, especially coming back from 2-0 down and getting the win."

Fleury had 29 saves for the Penguins, who didn't play with playoff intensity, something that irked coach Dan Bylsma.

"We would have liked to be able to make importance of the game, but that's not the case," said Bylsma, whose team had clinched the top seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference playoffs more than a week ago. "I don't like giving up the lead the way we did. I don't like giving up a power-play goal late. Those are situations we've been good at all year. We certainly want to play well the last few games, and we're looking to play well, but that didn't happen."

The Devils got the tying goal in the opening minutes of the third period on a power play. Pascal Dupuis was called for tripping, and soon after, Clarkson received a great pass from Patrik Elias and scored his 15th goal of the season with 16:59 left. It was only the third goal in the last 14 games for Clarkson, who had scored 10 goals in the first 12 games of the lockout-shortened campaign.

Zajac almost had his second goal of the game, but his hard shot bounced off the crossbar with 12:24 remaining.

Rookie Eric Gelinas had a chance to break the tie as well, but his slap shot from the point was gloved by Fleury. Gelinas was playing in his first NHL game.

The Devils had the better of the action in the first period, outshooting the Penguins by a 12-6 margin.

However, Pittsburgh had the only score, as Cooke knocked the puck through Hedberg's legs for his seventh goal of the season midway through the first period. Brenden Morrow kept the play alive in the Devils' end and pushed it toward the goal, where Cooke was alone in front. Cooke didn't get all of the shot, but he managed enough to slide it past Hedberg for the 1-0 lead at the 8:52 mark.

The Penguins scored again in the second period on the power play.

With Elias in the box for tripping, Kris Letang made a perfect lead pass to Jokinen, who managed to corral a bouncing puck to fire a high wrist shot past Hedberg for his 11th goal of the season with 5:59 left in the period. It was the fifth goal for Jokinen in nine games with the Penguins since being acquired in a trade with Carolina on April 3.

The Devils sliced the lead in half with 1:27 remaining in the second when Zajac knocked in a rebound of a second shot from Anton Volchenkov. It was Zajac's seventh goal of the season and his first since April 10.

Elias was disappointed about his team's fate.

"We had a great run last year, and I wish we could be there again," Elias said. "Those 10 games really hurt us, but that's the way it goes. We weren't giving up. The fight wasn't over yet."

NOTES: Elias will be an unrestricted free agent after Saturday's season finale against the New York Rangers, so Thursday night could have been the final home game for the franchise's all-time leader in goals (375), assists (553) and points (928). The 37-year-old Elias would love to return to the Devils next season, but he doesn't know his status. ... Gelinas was a second-round pick in the 2009 draft. He suffered a broken jaw and had eight teeth displaced when he was hit in the mouth with a slap shot playing for Albany of the AHL last October. He was recalled to the Devils this week to replace the injured Bryce Salvador, and he started Thursday along with Peter Harrold. ... Before the game, Hedberg, a 40-year-old veteran, reiterated that he wants to return next season to honor the final year on his contract, much like the Devils' other 40-year-old netminder, Martin Brodeur. ... The Penguins have clinched the top seed in the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs, but they still do not know their first-round playoff opponent. It could be one of five teams. ... Standout center Sidney Crosby remains out of action with a broken jaw, and there is no timetable for his return. The Penguins are hopeful he can return for the first round of the playoffs.
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