Leave it to the NHL's $100-million man to spoil the Toronto Maple Leafs' recent run.
New Jersey Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who signed that controversial contract last summer, scored the winning goal with 23.2 seconds remaining in overtime on Thursday to give his team a 2-1 win over the Leafs on Thursday.
The extra point moved Toronto to within seven points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, as the Leafs continue an unlikely postseason push with a 4-1-1 record since the NHL's all-star break.
Toronto looked poised to steal another two points for much of this one, too, as rookie netminder James Reimer was terrific in making 37 saves and winger Nikolai Kulemin scored his 21st of the season early in the second period to give Toronto a 1-0 lead.
The Leafs nearly made it 2-0 late in that same period when Tyler Bozak put a shot off the post after a breakaway gave him an open net to shoot at.
Bozak drew a penalty on the play, but with the power play struggling all night, it didn't pay off. Toronto went 0 for 4 in the game and are now 3 for 40 in their past 11 games.
Mired at the bottom of the standings much of the year, the Jacques Lemaire-led Devils of old appear to be back in business, as they trapped the life out of the game all the way through. It's a strategy that has them on a 11-2-1 record in their past 14 games and which eventually paid off in this one.
It wasn't until three minutes into the third period, however, that New Jersey finally solved Reimer. A point shot deflected off Dainius Zubrus and in to make the score 1-1, which seemed to give the Devils life as they then carried the balance of play until Kovalchuk's winner.
"The Devils are playing great right now," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "It was a tight-checking game although both teams had a lot of scoring chances and the goalies played well."
The newest Leaf, right winger Joffrey Lupul, having arrived at 10 p.m. a night earlier, was surprisingly sharp in the game, picking up loose pucks and battling in the corners.
Playing on the second line with Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur, Lupul also had several good scoring chances, getting 18 minutes of ice time that included significant time with the man advantage.
The three lacked any chemistry on the power play, which is no surprise given they didn't even have the morning skate to get accustomed to one another.
"I had a good chance [in the third period]that I really would have liked to score on," Lupul said of a failed 2-on-1 where he whiffed on a pass from MacArthur. "That's obviously one I would have liked to have back. But we'll practise tomorrow, we'll try and get a little more sharp."
A three-time 20-goal scorer, Lupul was acquired along with prospect Jake Gardiner in a deal made Wednesday morning that sent defenceman Francois Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks.
Aulie a hit
Replacing Beauchemin in the Leafs lineup, meanwhile, was 21-year-old Keith Aulie, called up from the minors Thursday afternoon after centre John Mitchell cleared waivers and was sent down to open a roster spot.
Aulie was a physical force all night long in his first NHL action since mid-December, leading all players with seven hits and playing 22 minutes alongside captain Dion Phaneuf.
Both were on the ice for Kovalchuk's winner, with Aulie close to the shooter and perhaps preventing Reimer from seeing the shot, but it was an otherwise solid first game for Toronto's revamped top pairing.
Aulie said Leafs general manager Brian Burke had a message for him when he was called up.
"Here's your opportunity," Aulie said. "Show us that you belong here. Come up here and play to the best of your ability."
At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Aulie is considered a big part -- literally -- of Toronto's future on the blueline. He was the lone prospect acquired in the blockbuster Phaneuf deal that Burke swung with the Calgary Flames on Jan. 31, 2010.