NHL Playoffs 2012: Ilya Kovalchuk Stars for New Jersey Devils in Game 3
Did Ilya Kovalchuk just play the best playoff game of his career?
On Game 3 Thursday night in Newark, Kovalchuk returned from injury to log a goal and two assists, including the setup of Alexei Ponikarovsky's overtime winner, as the New Jersey Devils beat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 to take a 2-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
During a stretch when the character of many Eastern European players is being called into question, the oft-maligned Kovalchuk is bucking the trend.
Evgeni Malkin may have been a playoff bust for Pittsburgh; Russia's Alex Radulov and Belarus's Andrei Kostitsyn may be breaking curfew with the Predators; Ilya Bryzgalov may be back on the moon for the Flyers...
Yet here we are. Kovalchuk, who has been battling through injury to contribute to his Devils, was the difference maker in Game 3—hands down.
When the Devils traded for Kovalchuk at the 2010 deadline, he had played in precisely four post-season games in his entire NHL career. While he was with Atlanta the Thrashers had been swept by the New York Rangers in 2007 in the franchise's lone playoff appearance.
After acquiring Kovalchuk, the second-seeded Devils were knocked out of the playoffs in five games by seventh-seeded Philadelphia. The star did contribute with six points, but a first-round exit was not what Devils management had in mind when they swung the big deal to acquire the Russian sniper.
For a defense-first franchise, Kovalchuk seemed like an odd fit, and it was widely assumed that the relationship between Kovy and the Devils would be short-lived.
Yet, the bean-counters tinkered on, and after the Devils' original 17-year, $102 million contract was nullified by the league for circumventing the salary cap, they were able to approve a 15-year deal to keep Kovalchuk a Devil for life.
New Jersey promptly missed the playoffs in 2011. When they finished sixth in the Eastern Conference in 2012, it was assumed that Martin Brodeur's best days were behind him, that Zach Parise had already set his free-agent sights on Detroit and that, despite his 83-point season and apparent buy-in to the Devils defensive style, Kovalchuk would never amount to anything.
Things started to change when the Devils beat the Florida Panthers in Game 7 in double overtime to advance to the second round—the first time in Kovalchuk's career that his team has gone this deep into the playoffs.
So the criticism shifted. Why wasn't he producing more? Why was he held off the scoresheet in such a pivotal game?
The pattern continued in Game 1 against the Flyers, who prevailed in overtime as Kovalchuk neglected to record even a single shot on goal.
After that game, reports began to surface that Kovalchuk had been suffering from a back injury since midway through the Florida series, and his status going forward was uncertain. He sat out Game 2, yet the Devils blazed to a 4-1 win to tie the series.
Will Kovalchuk lead the Devils to victory over the Flyers?
Still, all eyes were on Kovy at the morning skate before Game 3. He said he felt better but was a game-time decision. That decision paid off.
Kovalchuk was clearly the most important player on the ice for either team in Game 3. His competition level was at its peak and he came within inches of sealing the game for the Devils in the third period when his shot rang off the post right.
On the game-winner, he dominated a long shift before threading a perfect pass through to Ponikarovsky, who took two cracks at it but finally fired it home.
There were jokes aplenty on Monday when the Devils announced that Kovalchuk had missed practice to go to 'therapy', but whatever they did, it worked.
On Thursday, he showed North American hockey fans what they've been waiting ten years to see.
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