Ilya Kovalchuk had a goal and two assists in his return to the lineup and set up Alexei Ponikarovsky's tally with 2:39 left in overtime as the Devils defeated the Flyers, 4-3, Thursday night to take a 2-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
"Winning this game in overtime is a big plus," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who made 25 saves. "We tried to keep serve, I guess. We play another big one, and we can really put the pressure on them in the next game if we play well. It's a good team on the other side, and we have to be cautious about the way we're going to have to approach our game."
New Jersey will look to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series here Sunday.
The Devils have the series edge because they've scored 11 goals in three games, and their penalty kill — No. 1 in the NHL during the regular season — has been outstanding. It erased two penalties in overtime and has limited the Flyers to two goals on 16 extra-man chances overall. Philadelphia was 12-for-23 against Pittsburgh in the opening round.
"We're really confident with our penalty kill. It's been good all series," said Zach Parise, who also scored for New Jersey along with Patrik Elias. "They've got great players on the power play, but we're finding a way to make it tough on them. We had to remind ourselves that we had the best penalty kill all year, and that was for a reason."
The Devils' short-handed unit was so good in overtime that the Flyers never threatened in those four minutes.
Kovalchuk, who missed Game 2 with a lower back injury, then made a pass from his own end that sent Ponikarovsky into the Flyers' zone on a 2-on-1. Ilya Bryzgalov stopped his initial shot but the forward snared his first goal of the post-season on a backhander that Bryzgalov's left side.
"I didn't have time to celebrate because everyone jumped on me right away," Ponikarovsky said, "but I had a great time in the pile."
But Kovalchuk, clearly, was the Devils' top player in Game 3.
"You feel pressure," Kovalchuk said. "The guys played so well, and you don't want to get back in the lineup just because you want to play."
Danny Briere, Matt Carle and Brayden Schenn tallied for the Flyers. Bryzgalov had 27 saves.
"We're down 2-1, the pressure is on us," Flyers forward Claude Giroux said. "There is no guy on this team that is going to quit. It's going to be a wake-up call.
"We have a good series now."
Schenn nearly won the game eight minutes into overtime with a deflection in front and then the Devils' penalty kill did an outstanding job after a controversial boarding call against Dainius Zubrus with 11:37 left in the overtime and a delay-of-game penalty against Bryce Salvador. New Jersey had problems with its short-handed lines in Round 1 vs. Florida, but the unit has regained its form.
"I think the power play won us a lot of games this year and tonight wasn't the case," Giroux said. "We have to do a better job."
The Devils seemed on the verge of a 3-2 win early in the third when Parise rammed a puck into the net from in close after Elias won a loose puck behind the net and found the Devils' captain all alone at the right goal post.
Kovalchuk came within inches of making it a two-goal lead minutes later, when he had a shot hit off the crossbar as Bryzgalov looked behind him.
"He had three points, a huge goal, and then a great play on the winner," Parise said of Kovalchuk. "He is a special player, and it's good to get him back."
Philadelphia tied the game on somewhat of a gift from Brodeur. The Devils' 39-year-old goaltender could not control a weak shot from the outside of the left faceoff circle by New Jersey native James van Riemsdyk, and Briere chipped the rebound over his pads. He has scored goals in five of the Flyers' nine playoff games.
The first two periods were distinct with the Devils dominating the final 11 minutes of the opening session, and the Flyers having the upper hand for most of the second.
Carle tied the game at 2-2 at 4:44 of the second with a blast from the top of the left circle that was set up by Jakub Voracek. The forward took a pass along the right boards, skated around the net and found an unguarded Carle coming in from the point for a shot that whizzed by Brodeur.
The goal came minutes after Bryzgalov stopped Adam Henrique on a breakaway to prevent New Jersey from taking a 3-1 lead.
After falling behind 1-0 early, the Devils outshot Philadelphia 10-3 and grabbed the lead when Elias and Kovalchuk tallied in a 20-second span, the fastest two post-season goals in franchise history.
Kovalchuk, the Devils' leading scorer in the regular season with 37 goals and 83 points, had his legs in the opening period and it paid off for New Jersey.
With Braydon Coburn off for tripping, Elias tied the score with a shot from the right circle that went off Bryzgalov's glove. Kovalchuk recorded the secondary assist on the play, sending a pass from the left point to defenceman Marek Zidlicky, who slid it to Elias.
Kovalchuk's goal came on a quick counterattack in which he came late down the middle, took a pass from Travis Zajac and wristed a shot past the Flyers' goalie. The Russian, who had never been part of a winning team in an NHL series until this year's first round vs. the Panthers, pumped his fists and celebrated his fourth goal.
And there was more to celebrate after Parise's go-ahead goal stood.
Schenn had put the Flyers ahead with a power-play goal 6:08 after the opening faceoff. Briere set up Schenn's third post-season goal with a pass from along the goal line that found Schenn low in the left circle. His shot beat Brodeur to the short side.
The Devils have now won three of four overtime contests this post-season, including Games 6 and 7 vs. Florida, when facing elimination. Meanwhile, dating back to their first-round win over Pittsburgh, Philadelphia has now lost consecutive road games.
NOTES: The Flyers didn't make any lineup changes. The Devils did. With Kovalchuk returning, New Jersey sat defenceman Peter Harrold, who had played in all nine previous playoff games. ... The old Devils' record for two fastest playoff goals was 26 seconds by Petr Sykora and Bobby Holik on May 14, 2000 at Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals. That Devils team won the Stanley Cup. ... Flyers C Sean Couturier sustained a lower-body injury in the first period and did not return. ... The crowd of 17,625 was a sellout. ... Devils rookie defenceman Adam Larsson, 19, who scored in his playoff debut in Game 2, remained in the lineup. ... Brodeur will turn 40 on Sunday, in time for Game 4.