NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - After going nine games without a goal, Ilya Kovalchuk is back in the groove. Now the New Jersey Devils are surging again.
The Russian star scored three goals to record his second hat trick in just over three weeks, and the Devils won for the third time in four games with a 5-1 rout of the New York Islanders on Thursday night.
``He's been playing really well,' said Martin Brodeur, who made 29 saves in the win.' The last game and today kind of makes up for the fact he hadn't been scoring much. The way he was carrying the puck, the way he was skating and shooting, that's what we need, for him to be as good as he can every night. He's been a force for us.'
The victory was the Devils' 38th of the season and it gave them 81 points, matching last season's totals when they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996. With 15 games to go, and Kovalchuk seemingly on a tear, New Jersey looks ready to return to the postseason.
``I came here to score goals and make plays for my team to try and make my team win,' said Kovalchuk, who has 29 goals ``Right now I feel very comfortable, especially after the Rangers game. It was a big test for us.'
Linemate Zach Parise, who had two assists in recording his 400th NHL point, said Kovalchuk has been looking to shoot more lately.
``When he gets one early, he's going to be feeling good the rest of the night,' Parise said. ``He picked those two one-timers clean.
``There are not a lot of players that can pick a long pass like that clean and beat a goalie clean.'
Patrik Elias and David Clarkson also scored, and Kovalchuk's other linemate, center Adam Henrique, also had two assists.
``He's definitely the most skilled player I've played with, not to take anything away from the guys we've had through the years,' Brodeur said. ``This guy is special. It's about how explosive he is on his skates, how strong he is with his legs that makes him such a tough player to defend. He brings an element teams have to worry about, especially when he's surrounded with other good players.'
Defenseman Andy MacDonald scored for the Islanders, who had a two-game winning streak snapped and took another hit to their already dim playoff hopes. Evgeni Nabokov stopped 15 shots and lost for the sixth time in 16 games (10-5-1).
Islanders coach Jack Capuano was more annoyed by his team's execution, and the effort of some players, than the final score.
``We had some guys, without mentioning names, you watch the game, that quite frankly were invisible,' Capuano said.
Kovalchuk broke out of his slump with a goal in an emotional win over the New York Rangers on Tuesday, and he got three more on Thursday.
His final goal at 8:09 of the third period came a little more than a minute after Elias scored off a rebound to give New Jersey a 3-1 lead.
Parise found Kovalchuk between the circles, and Kovalchuk one-timed a shot past Nabokov. He pumped his fists to celebrate as hats started fluttering to the ice.
Kovalchuk staked the Devils to a 2-0 lead with an even-strength goal at 8:07 of the first period and a power-play tally at 3:33 of the second.
Parise set up the first one with a great pass to Kovalchuk at the left side of the net. His initial shot at an open cage missed everything and hit off the end boards, but the puck bounced right back to him, and he lifted a shot over Nabokov.
Kovalchuk's second goal came 14 seconds after Islanders defenseman Steve Staios was whistled for tripping him. Defenseman Marek Zidlicky slid the puck to Kovalchuk for a shot that he ripped past a defenseless Nabokov.
``He is an elite player,' Capuano said. ``He got them going. There is no question. He had the big shot from the slot, the power-play goal. The power-play goal was huge for them. That's what the best players in the world do. In big games, they perform and he was real good.'
The Islanders, who outshot the Devils 19-11 in the first two periods, didn't get on the board until MacDonald scored a fluke goal with 3:39 left in the second. The Islanders broke into the Devils' zone on a 3-on-2 rush, and MacDonald chased down a loose puck behind the New Jersey net. He fired a shot that hit Brodeur's right arm and went in. Brodeur immediately looked up at the rafters in disgust.
The Devils blew the game open with three goals in the third.
NOTES: Zidlicky got two points, his first since joining the Devils last month. ... The teams have split the first four games of the six-game season series. ... Devils F Alexei Ponikarovsky returned to the lineup after missing three games with an undisclosed lower body injury. ... The game was the 599th of Nabokov's career. ... MacDonald's goal snapped a 31-game goal drought.
The Associated Press News Service
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