After pressing for a week following a blockbuster trade, Kovalchuk lived up to his reputation as one of the NHL's big goal-scorers by snapping a third-period tie in the Devils' 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Friday night.
"It's always exciting when you score," Kovalchuk said after his first in five games with New Jersey. "That was a big goal for us, to take the lead. It's a great win for us."
The goal had been expected for a long time and the fans let loose, showering the ice with their hats.
"I didn't know what to do about that," Kovalchuk said. "It was kind of a welcome goal. It was nice. I always appreciate it when the fans are behind you. Maybe next time, I'll get a hat trick. A real one."
No one on the New Jersey bench really knew how to react.
"The linesman can over and asked, "That isn't the hat trick for him? Am I missing something?'" said Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who added a goal and two assists. "Definitely, the fans are excited to have him here."
The Devils traded three players and a No. 1 draft pick to the Atlanta Thrashers to get Kovalchuk, the NHL's top goal-scorer since joining the NHL in 2001.
Kovalchuk had two assists in his first game with the Devils and then was shut out his next three. He finally broke through on Friday, taking a pass from Patrik Elias and beating Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne with a snap shot from between the circles at 8:24 of the final period to break a 2-all tie.
"His offensive ability is just crazy," Predators captain Jason Arnott said of Kovalchuk. "He is really going to help out on the power play and he is starting to gel with Patty. Once he gets comfortable, he is going to fit in well."
"A game-breaker is important and Ilya did it today for us," said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who had 19 saves. "Other players will do it once in a while but that's why we brought him in. Today he was and that's going to jumpstart everybody."
"We need to tighten up and win the last game before the break," Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. "You see how tight the Western Conference is and we have 21 games after the [Olympic] break. It's a sprint, 17 games in March. It's going to be crazy and we need to get on a roll."
Kovalchuk nearly got his first goal for New Jersey in the opening minute when his monster slap shot clanged off the crossbar.
Rinne had no chance on the go-ahead goal. Langenbrunner carried the puck deep into the zone and sent it behind the net, where Elias collected it and skated to the left corner. The captain of the Czech Republic Olympic team turned and found Kovalchuk cutting into the middle of the ice for a wide-open shot and his 32nd goal of the season.
"He's a good player and he has a good shot and he picked a corner and unfortunately I could not make the save," Rinne said. "Obviously it was the key moment of game and you want to make those saves. It ended up winning the game for them."
Parise, who missed Wednesday night's 3-2 loss to the Flyers, corralled a loose rebound and fired it past Rinne for his 27th goal. Langenbrunner scored into an empty net with 41.2 seconds to play.
Tootoo had put the Predators ahead 2-1 in the opening minute of the second period with a 40-foot shot that found the lower corner of the net for his second goal in as many games.
Elias tied the game less than two minutes later with another pinshot shot. He took a pass from defenseman Mike Mottau and beat Rinne from 10 feet above the left circle with a shot that found the top corner of the net.
For the first time in three games, the Devils didn't blow a 2-0 lead. This time it was only a 1-0 lead.
Zajac put New Jersey ahead midway through the first period with his 19th goal. Langenbrunner, the captain of the U.S. Olympic team, did all the work, carrying the puck from center ice to near the goal before finding a wide-open Zajac with a pass across the crease.
O'Reilly, who got his first goal of the season on Tuesday against the Islanders, tied the game with 90 seconds left in the period. He took a pass from Colin Wilson and beat Brodeur with a shot from between the circles.
Devils defenseman Anssi Salmela missed his second straight game with a concussion. New Jersey recalled defensemen Cory Murphy and Matt Corrente from AHL Lowell. Both played, although Corrente skated as a right winger on the fourth line. ... Predators center Jerred Smithson, who suffered a lower-body injury against the Rangers on Wednesday, was not in the lineup. ... Left winger Jay Pandolfo (healthy scratch) missed his first game since Dec. 4.