Zajac sets up 2, Brodeur has 17 saves for Devils
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two games after getting Martin Brodeur back in the lineup, the New Jersey Devils will now have to deal with another injury to another star player.
Ilya Kovalchuk injured his right shoulder when he slammed into the boards behind the Florida Panthers’ net in the third period of the Devils’ 2-1 victory Saturday night.
New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said his high-scoring forward is likely going to miss “at least a short time.”
“Injuries are a part of this,” DeBoer said after the Devils’ won their second straight since Brodeur returned from a monthlong stint on the sideline because of a pinched nerve in his back.
“Everybody is dealing with them, so I think we have to be prepared for that,” DeBoer said. “I think mentally coming into the season we’re prepared that we’re going to have to lose key people and be able to survive it. So no one is feeling sorry for yourself, and we’ll get through it.”
Kovalchuk, who was hurt with roughly 10 minutes left, wasn’t in the dressing room after the final buzzer. He left the rink accompanied by a team doctor. The sleeve of his windbreaker was empty, and he held his arm tight to his body.
The Devils struggled without Brodeur, and Kovalchuk might be even tougher to replace than their goalie because he makes New Jersey’s anemic offense go.
Travis Zajac was the key for New Jersey against the Panthers, setting up second-period goals by Patrik Elias and David Clarkson to back Brodeur’s 17-save performance.
“Travis is really finding his game,” DeBoer said. “The last couple of weeks, he has been really big for us.”
This was the first meeting between the teams since the Devils eliminated the Panthers in double overtime in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series last season.
Peter Mueller scored for Florida, which had a two-game winning streak snapped. Scott Clemmensen made 23 saves for the Panthers, who are on a season-high, five-game trip.
“As of late, we’re playing pretty good,” Clemmensen said. “As a result, we’re in every game and that gives us a chance to win. I thought it was a well-played game, and the score was a result of that.
“It’s tough to win on the road. We played a pretty good hockey game, but it was tough to lose.”
There was some chippiness at the end of the game when Scottie Upshall hit Devils captain Bryce Salvador behind the net after the final buzzer.
New Jersey’s Adam Henrique, who scored the series winner last year, exchanged shoves with Tomas Fleischmann before order was restored.
After being held to two shots in the first period, the Devils got two goals in the second. Zajac took advantage of Panthers turnovers to set up both goals.
The first mistake came early in the period. Filip Kuba banked the puck off the boards to center ice, but one of his teammates inadvertently nudged it back toward the Florida blue line. Zajac gathered the puck at the right point, skated into the zone, and sent a cross-ice pass to Elias, who came down the middle for a redirection through Clemmensen’s pads at 1:24.
It was Elias’ 10th goal, the 15th straight season he has scored in double figures.
Another bad clearing pass led to Clarkson’s team-high 12th goal, but only his second in 18 games.
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov sent a pass off the sideboards in his zone into center ice. Zajac got the puck in stride and skated into the Panthers’ end and found Clarkson between the circles.
Clemmensen stopped the shot but couldn’t control it. When the puck fell to his feet, Clarkson swatted it home.
Brodeur, who got credit for a gift goal on Thursday when a Hurricanes player put the puck into his own net, handed Florida its only goal with 10 seconds left in the second period.
One of the best puck-handling goalies ever, Brodeur had the puck slide off his stick behind the net when pressured. Fleishmann took the puck and sent it in front to Mueller for a tap-in, his seventh goal of the season.
“I thought the second period was the best we’ve played in a long while,” Brodeur said after his 666th win. “I gave up the puck at the end, and those things happen. I’m sure it will happen again. Sometimes, you get surprised like that. It’s part of the game. I’m just lucky it wasn’t the game-tying goal.”
While he didn’t face many quality shots, Brodeur came up big twice in close against Jonathan Huberdeau, and once against Quinton Howden on a 2-on-1 rush, all in the second period.
The Devils had a great chance to expand the lead in the third period when Florida defenseman Colby Robak was given a major penalty for cross-checking Tim Sestito.
However, with Kovalchuk off the ice, the power play was ineffective, and Clemmensen was barely tested.
“I just hope he’s all right, because we definitely need him,” Clarkson said. “Anytime you see your leading scorer go down, it’s tough. We’ve played through a lot of things, but not without Kovy.”
NOTES: This was the first of three games between the clubs in the final five weeks of the season. ... Panthers D Dmitry Kulikov returned to the lineup after missing 10 games with a wrist injury. He replaced Erik Gudbranson, who was ill.