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Ilya Kovalchuk lifts surging Devils in landmark win for Lemaire

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - Ilya Kovalchuk scored with 24 seconds remaining in overtime to lift the New Jersey Devils to a 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs that also earned coach Jacques Lemaire his 600th career win on Thursday.

"It's nice to get him (Lemaire) the win, I think he is the best coach in the league," Kovalchuk told reporters. "It's a pleasure to play for these type of coaches.

"With his experience, he knows exactly what he needs to tell the guys. He knows the right buttons to push for every player."

Dainus Zubrus also scored for the Devils, who have just one regulation loss in their last 14 games, going 11-1-2 since January 8 to edge up the Eastern Conference standings, although they remain well outside the playoff spots back in 13th place.

Nikolai Kulemin grabbed Toronto's tally on a setup from All-Star forward Phil Kessel, whose scoring drought extended to 13 games without a goal.

With the victory, Lemaire becomes the eighth coach to record 600 career NHL wins, a milestone he thought was beyond him until coming out of retirement in December to take over for fired John MacLean behind the Devils bench.

Lemaire, who coached the Devils to a Stanley Cup triumph in 1995 and won eight Cups as a Montreal player, shrugged off the achievement, saying he had not been aware he was that close until only recently.

"I didn't know," laughed Lemaire. "A coach is only as good as the players and I have been fortunate to work with good people around me throughout my career."

Kovalchuk, who signed a $100 million 15-year deal with the Devils before the start of the season, has keyed the New Jersey turnaround, scoring five goals and five assists in his last eight games.

The Russian sniper has rediscovered his scoring touch under Lemaire, who has encouraged Kovalchuk to shoot more.

"He (Kovalchuk) is a kid who wants to improve, wants to learn," Lemaire added. "He is working hard to do what we are asking all what he gets right now he deserves it.

"He's got a great shot, he can score from everywhere."

(Editing by John O'Brien)