The Devils went from sudden death to sudden life.
Travis Zajac scored at 5:39 of overtime to keep New Jersey’s 2011-12 season alive with a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series at Prudential Center Tuesday night. The series is tied 3-3. Game 7 is Thursday night at BankAtlantic Center.
“I just want to get a shot on net,” Zajac said of his laser that beat Scott Clemmensen high. Linemates Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise assisted on the goal to complete a night that saw the trio finish plus-one with five points.
“Kovy makes a great play to me, bringing a couple guys towards him and giving me time to get a quick shot on net. I was able to get it by him,” Zajac said.
Steve Bernier and Ilya Kovalchuk also scored for the Devils.
Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim scored for Florida.
The teams entered overtime tied at 2-2 despite the Devils’ clear territorial advantage through regulation. The Devils outshot Florida, 36-13, in the first two periods and 42-16 for the game.
But Scott Clemmensen kept his team in the game. The Panthers were content to sit back and clog the middle of ice while the Devils bombed away from the perimeter against Clemmensen, who was deep in his crease for much of the game.
The first two times the Devils solved their former teammate, he was forced to move laterally. Bernier scored his second goal of the series at 16:37 of first period by throwing a shot between Clemmensen’s skates that opened the scoring, and Kovalchuk doubled the lead to 2-0 with a backdoor, power play tap-in at 4:21 of second period. Kovalchuk’s goal was his third of the series.
“We threw a lot of shots at Clemmensen,” Parise said. “It was just coincidence tonight. You try to make it hard on [goalies], try to get them moving a little bit. I think he did a really good job. When he saw the puck, he made the save.”
Versteeg halved the Devils’ lead at 7:05 of the second with a shot that pinballed off of Anton Volchenkov’s skate and past Martin Brodeur (14 saves). Bergenheim tied the game, 2-2, 12:44 after Versteeg’s marker by finishing a 3-on-2 odd man rush with a tuck-in goal off of Mikael Samuelsson’s shot from the slot that tied the game at 2-2.
“You just have to be resilient,” said Parise when asked if he and his teammates had feelings of frustration.
“We knew we were going to get our chances,” added Zajac.
The play began with Kovalchuk having been pulled to the ice in the offensive zone. Kovalchuk laid waiting for a call that never came while the Panthers were up-ice.
The game remained tied until Zajac’s game-winner. The goal was his third of the series and he also recorded a primary assist on Kovalchuk’s goal. Zajac leads all skaters with six points in the series.
“He’s a good guy to play with,” Parise said of Zajac. “He makes my job easier. He makes Kovy’s job easier. He makes his linemates better.”
The Devils are 6-7 in the 13 Game 7s the franchise has competed in. The last time the Devils played in a Game Seven was the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Devils lost, 4-3, to the Carolina Hurricanes at the Rock.
“We didn’t do anything. We didn’t accomplish anything. We forced a Game 7,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s the first one in my career so I’m excited. I can’t wait.”
Florida has played in two Game 7s in franchise history and won both, beating the Flyers and Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference Semifinals and Eastern Conference Finals, respectively. The Panthers were swept by Colorado in the Stanley Cup Final that year.
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.