Home-ice advantage bounced back to the Devils just as quickly.
Zajac scored off his own rebound at 4:58 of overtime, and New Jersey beat Carolina 3-2 on Sunday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference playoff series.
Zach Parise scored for the third straight game and assisted on Zajac’s winner for the Devils, who took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series by turning the tables on the Hurricanes. After all, it was just two nights earlier that Carolina turned up its intensity in OT and briefly put itself in control after its stunner in New Jersey.
“We know how we need to play and how we want to play. When we play that way, it’s a lot more fun for the players,” Devils coach Brent Sutter said.
“They won a game in our building—obviously, we were going to have to come here and get that one back. It’s nice to get it back with your first game. Now, we can get focused for Game 4 and see what happens.”
That’s set for Tuesday night in Raleigh, and with Parise and Zajac looking right at home while skating alongside new linemate Brian Rolston—who subbed for the injured Jamie Langenbrunner—the Devils don’t seem to be missing a beat without their captain.
Their reconfigured No. 1 line generated two goals, including the one that was most significant.
Parise started the decisive sequence by attempting to throw the puck toward Rolston, but it clicked off Anton Babchuk’s skate and to Zajac in the slot. Ward stopped Zajac’s wrist shot with his pads, but Zajac followed by flipping it high past the Carolina goalie for his second career playoff goal.
“The puck bounced out to me and I got a couple of good whacks at it,” Zajac said.
Brian Gionta added a goal, Zajac assisted on Parise’s goal, and Martin Brodeur stopped 28 shots for the Devils. They improved to 1-5 against the Hurricanes in overtime playoff games and have yet to trail in regulation in the series.
Referring to his team taking a lead in regulation, Carolina coach Paul Maurice deadpanned: “We’d love to try that.”
“It’s why you play seven games,” LaRose said. “We didn’t think it was going to be easy.”
Neither team managed much of anything during a scoreless third period, but well before that, LaRose pulled the Hurricanes to 2-all after they failed to capitalize on a two-man advantage late in the second.
His goal came on a redirection one second after a power play expired, when he tipped Patrick Eaves’ shot from the left circle past Brodeur with 4:30 left— one second after the Devils killed off both a 52-second 5-on-3 situation and the 1:08 of single-man advantage that followed for Carolina.
Before that, though, New Jersey was in control throughout the second period — mainly because Gionta had given them both the lead and a significant momentum boost when he made it 2-1 in the final seconds of the first. He intercepted Joe Corvo’s clearing pass to Ward’s right, watched as Ray Whitney skated past and snapped the puck past the Carolina goalie with 8.6 seconds left.
That score capped an opening 20 minutes in which New Jersey seemed to adjust quite nicely to life without Langenbrunner. Sutter was forced to juggle his lines after the captain left midway through Game 2 with a lower-body injury that will keep him out for at least one more game.
The coach played it coy with reporters after the morning skate, but wound up moving Rolston into the open spot at right wing on the Devils’ No. 1 line while sliding Bobby Holik—a 16-season veteran who wasn’t terribly happy about being a healthy scratch for Games 1 and 2—back into the lineup and into the spot vacated by Rolston.
Early on—and in a bit of foreshadowing—those three top linemates looked plenty comfortable together.
They were undeterred while facing an amped-up crowd of Caniacs soaking up their first home playoff game since winning Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals and looking to continue the momentum of their 2-1 OT win two nights earlier.
“All (the games) are important, (but) for us to come down here after that tough loss and get this one was big,” Parise said. “We had a lot of great chemistry, and hopefully, we can stick with it.”
Rolston and the Devils silenced them, albeit only temporarily. Rolston delivered a key wakeup call with a behind-the-net collision moments before Paul Martin uncorked a shot that clicked off Parise and through Ward’s legs with 13:25 left for his third goal of the series.
But that lead lasted all of 31 seconds, because a fortuitous Carolina misplay helped Bayda even it at 1-all. Scott Walker stopped and started behind the net before passing toward the slot to Jussi Jokinen, and when the Finn fanned on his shot, the puck went through his legs and Bayda was there to wrist it high past Brodeur.
“Our compete level was there. We battled back. We just didn’t get it done in overtime,” Carolina center Eric Staal said. “A win is a win (and) a loss is a loss in the playoffs. You’ve got to leave (the final result), no matter what.”
Rolston hit the left post with a wrist shot with 6 1/2 minutes left in regulation. … Martin has points in all three games for New Jersey. … Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher sounded the siren that announces the Hurricanes’ pregame entrance. Cowher played at North Carolina State and lives in Raleigh. … N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien also was in attendance. … Carolina scratched D Dennis Seidenberg for the second straight game.
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