(AP) — Whether or not it’s too late for Ilya Kovalchuk to lead the New Jersey Devils to the playoffs, he probably wouldn’t mind making sure his former team’s postseason push ends in disappointment.
Kovalchuk makes another return to Atlanta on Friday night for the first of two meetings in five days between the Thrashers and Devils, with both clubs running out of time to gain ground in the Eastern Conference.
The Devils’ unlikely surge toward the playoffs hit an unexpected bump Tuesday, with conference-worst Ottawa handing New Jersey (30-32-4) just its third regulation defeat in 25 games.
After winning their last four games and taking 10 of their previous 12 by one goal, the Devils allowed the tiebreaking score with 2:13 to play in the 2-1 loss. Martin Brodeur’s seven-start winning streak was snapped.
“That was a tough one, a tough one to take,” forward Brian Rolston said. “They played well and we didn’t play good enough. We let it slip. But we’ll get back to it next game.”
New Jersey is in 12th place in the East, three points behind Atlanta – with both teams chasing the New York Rangers, Buffalo, Carolina and Toronto for the final two spots.
The Thrashers (28-28-11) seemed to have sunk from contention after going 2-9-2 in their first 13 games after the All-Star break, but they’ve won their last two as they cling to slim hopes.
“They’ll be desperate for the points,” Kovalchuk told the Devils’ official website. “They still believe they can do it, too. That will be a huge game. For us, it will be do or die.”
Atlanta blew an early 2-0 lead against the Hurricanes on Wednesday, but Tim Stapleton’s second goal of the season clinched a 3-2 overtime win.
“We really wanted to get out without giving up an extra point,” Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay said.
Ondrej Pavelec returned after missing four games with a wrist injury and had his best performance in weeks. Pavelec, who had gone 3-10-4 with a 3.54 goals-against average in his previous 18 appearances, stopped 35 shots.
Atlanta, hoping to win a third straight game for the first time since a six-game run Nov. 19-30, may have to do it without Dustin Byfuglien. The defenseman missed his first game of the season Wednesday due to a lower-body injury.
Kovalchuk should continue to get plenty of attention in his third visit to Atlanta since the Thrashers traded him to New Jersey on Feb. 4, 2010. He was booed in his last visit to Philips Arena on Dec. 18, when he scored in a 7-1 Devils loss.
Kovalchuk got some revenge 13 days later, netting a key insurance goal in a 3-1 home win over Atlanta.
The Thrashers’ all-time leader in several offensive categories, Kovalchuk has been a huge reason for New Jersey’s surge, but he was held to one shot Tuesday. It was just the second time in 17 games since the All-Star break that he went without a point.
“Kovy didn’t have a good game, (Patrik Elias) didn’t have a good game, but these guys have been carrying the team to a certain point,” coach Jacques Lemaire said. “It’s a bad game they had, they forget it, they go to the next one, that’s it.”
Updated March 10, 2011
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