Ilya Kovalchuk's debut with the New Jersey Devils had a storybook ending, except journeyman Jay Pandolfo provided the big goal instead of the high-scoring Russian.
Pandolfo capped a three-goal outburst in the final 3:04 and the Devils welcomed Kovalchuk by rallying for a 4-3 victory over the stunned Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night.
"The whole game I was asking players to win battles, to be better with the puck," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. "We had to be better. We couldn't do that. We did only the last two minutes and 50 seconds. Then everything was working. The skating, passing the puck, making plays. How it happened? I don't know."
What Lemaire knew was that Dean McAmmond, Travis Zajac and Pandolfo scored in the wild finish to turn a disappointing debut for Kovalchuk into a wild celebration.
The explosive Kovalchuk, acquired from Atlanta on Thursday in a blockbuster five-player deal, finished with two assists, but really wasn't much of a factor in the stunning comeback.
"It wasn't my best game, but I think we did all right, especially getting the two points," said Kovalchuk, whose biggest play might have been keeping the puck in the Maple Leafs' zone prior to Zajac's goal.
The Devils had hoped that the addition of Kovalchuk would jump-start their slumping offense and give New Jersey a marquee goal scorer to lead a Stanley Cup run.
However, Toronto was the better team for much of the opening 57 minutes. Second-period goals by Tomas Kaberle, Lee Stempniak and Rickard Wallin had the Maple Leafs on the verge of going 2-0 since acquiring defenseman Dion Phaneuf and goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Then came the collapse.
"When you get new guys, it's strange. Sometimes you are watching a little bit too much," Pandolfo said. "You're thinking and not playing the right way. It takes a little bit of time to get used to each other."
The Devils waited about as long as they could before snapping a two-game losing streak and winning for only the second time in six games.
McAmmond started the comeback by taking a pass from Vladimir Zharkov and beating Gustavsson with a backhander to cut the Maple Leafs' lead to a goal.
Less than a minute later, Alexei Ponikarovsky was called for hooking, and Zajac tied it with 44 seconds to go after taking a nice cross-ice pass from McAmmond.
With everyone thinking overtime, the Devils attacked and stole the game. Defenseman Mike Mottau took a shot that Gustavsson stopped, but Pandolfo scored his first goal in 16 games by converting the rebound his fourth goal of the season.
"I just kind of went into the zone and Jamie (Langenbrunner) made a great play back to Mike Mottau," Pandolfo said. "He had a good shot and I just went to the net for the rebound. I was at the right place at the right time."
Gustavsson could not explain what happened to the Maple Leafs.
"We've had a couple of games like this where we were up a couple of goals in the third period," he said. "It's tough right now. We just have to move on."
It made for a storybook ending for Kovalchuk, who set up the Devils' first goal by Dainius Zubrus in the first period. Kovalchuk also assisted on Zajac's tally.
While the 31-goal scorer didn't tally, the Devils found a way to get them late and win.
"We needed something to give us a jump start," Langenbrunner said. "We came out pretty good with a solid first period. Then we fell back into the way we've been going the last few weeks. We stood around and let them control the game. It was a big goal by Dino and you could see the excitement on the bench. We kind of rolled from there."
Trailing 1-0 entering the second period, the Maple Leafs scored three times, with two coming on the power play.
Kaberle got Toronto on the scoreboard early in the second period with Rob Niedermayer off for slashing. The defenseman's shot from the left point hit off the stick of Pandolfo and fluttered into the upper part of the net for his sixth goal.
Stempniak put Toronto ahead, taking the puck from Mottau, skating in an arcing half circle to the top of the right circle and beating Martin Brodeur with a shot between the pads for his 14th goal.
Wallin got a little lucky in scoring his first of the season. Langenbrunner attempted to backhand a puck out of his own zone but his pass hit off the skate of New Jersey defenseman Colin White and went right to Wallin, who fired a 25-footer past Brodeur.
"I don't think anyone saw this coming, even after they got their second goal," Wallin said. "That didn't seem much of a chance to develop. They have some players and you can't give them anything. That's what happened late on the penalty kill and the last one was just a killer."
Zubrus got the Devils on the board, backhanding a puck past Gustavsson that Kovalchuk centered in front.
NOTES: Devils F Patrik Elias missed his 10th game because of a concussion. ... Wallin has seven career goals in 56 games.
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