The New Jersey Devils most leaned-on line needed to start somewhere. If it took the Los Angeles Kings pulling otherworldly goaltender Jonathan Quick to help them break their ice in the Stanley Cup Finals, so be it.
In Wednesday night’s Game 4, top gun Ilya Kovalchuk led all Devils skaters, defensemen included, with 20 minutes and 28 seconds of ice time.
Appropriately enough, he spent that time throwing eight attempted shots and tied linemate Zach Parise for the team lead with a series-high four shots on goal. He had accumulated five over the previous three contests.
The last of those shots, his empty-net goal, finalized a series-saving 3-1 triumph and ended his series-long pointless skid.
Kovalchuk likewise gave linemate Travis Zajac his first point of the series in the form of the primary assist. All three first-line forwards finished with a plus-one rating by virtue of the goal.
And this followed the acts of another top-sixer, Adam Henrique, splashing his series-old drought with the go-ahead strike and born-again blue-line playmaker Bryce Salvador reawakening to assist on the first goal earlier in the period.
Kovalchuk still has yet to put a puck past Quick and the Devils still have yet to convert a power play against the Kings’ regal penalty-killing brigade. Both of those are among the chief reasons New Jersey dropped the first three games of the finals, but both can be remedied hand in hand with the help of a more confident Kovalchuk.
By officially wresting away Game 4 with 20 seconds remaining, he has afforded himself a chance to genuinely reintroduce his first-, second- and third-round form. Even if it was on an unguarded cage, his latest goal ought to relieve some residual tension from the recent cold spell.
Similarly, through four meetings, Parise has pelted Quick 15 times to no effect and remains pointless over his last five games, including the Eastern Conference clincher against the New York Rangers. In fact, the captain was New Jersey’s only top-six forward not to record a point in Game 4, Dainius Zubrus having scored the other assist on Patrik Elias’ icebreaker.
But the fact that at least five of the top six perked up and finally delivered a multi-goal outing for the Devils against Quick, not to mention a win, speaks for itself. One of those developments does not happen without the other.
Good enough for a one-game extension on their still-brittle bid for the Cup, to be sure. But what Kovalchuk, Parise and Zajac do to build upon Game 4 and show what they have learned about Quick and Co. from incessant frustrations will hold heavy sway on Saturday.
To date, the Devils’ top troika has been plainly outclassed by their L.A. counterparts, particularly elite scorer Anze Kopitar and playmaker Justin Williams. And New Jersey’s power play has been outscored by that of the Kings 3-0, despite garnering six more opportunities (15-9) in the series.
There may have been other reasons why the Devils were in a 3-0 and now 3-1 pothole, but none have been more jutting than those two. And Kovalchuk is the most critical common thread between the top line at even strength and the top unit on the New Jersey power play.
If he can click, maybe they can crack Quick and embolden their odds for a comeback.