What a difference a game makes. One night you're considered a pariah for flubbing your opportunity in the penalty shootout. Next game out, you're the hero as you deliver your team's first home victory of the season late in overtime.
Enter the world of Ilya Kovalchuk.
The New Jersey Devils went into their clash with the Edmonton Oilers without the services of their inspiring captain Jamie Langenbrunner.
During the Devils' previous encounter with the Buffalo Sabres, Langenbrunner suffered an upper body injury and was given the night off.
Someone had to step up and all eyes were on Kovalchuk, who was beginning to feel the burden of the enormous contract handed to him by New Jersey during the offseason.
Kovalchuk was able to beat Oilers' goalie Devan Dubnyk with 1:33 remaining before the game would advance to a shootout. The relief on Ilya's face was obvious as you could see the weight of expectations melt off. His teammates surrounded him in joy as they knew how much it meant for him to score such an important goal in their season.
No one ever doubted Kovalchuk's ability, skill or aptitude for the game of hockey. After his benching by head coach John MacLean weeks ago against the Sabres, questions were raised about his commitment to his teammates, as it was revealed that the superstar winger had missed multiple team meetings.
Rightfully so, MacLean had to discipline Kovalchuk for his actions even as it led to the Devils losing 6-1 as the Russian sniper had to learn the meaning of being a responsible teammate.
A significant portion of Devils fans began to vent their disapproval of Kovalchuk's play and behavior, as the feeling amongst them was that Ilya acted as if he was entitled and separate from the rest of his teammates.
The Devils have been mired in a terrible slump to begin the season and haven't caught any breaks. Their roster has been depleted with the likes of Brian Rolston, Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov missing for the majority of the season.
The news of All-Star caliber forward Zach Parise being ruled out for three months meant that someone had to rise up and take their game up a notch, and Kovalchuk delivered tonight.
New Jersey desperately needs Kovalchuk to play at the superstar level he's normally familiar with if they want to turn around their uncharacteristic start. With this goal and a lesson learned in maturity, he could be the man to change the Devils' fortunes and spur on a revival at "The Rock."
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