The New Jersey Devils' leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk hasn't looked like himself recently, leading to questions about whether the dynamic winger was playing hurt. Mark Everson of the New York Post reports that those concerns have some merit.
Kovalchuk has been going through rigorous workouts off the ice in an attempt to get himself back to full strength, according to Everson. That hasn't been enough, however, as he struggled to keep pace in Game 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers.
UPDATE: Thursday, May 3 at 12:15 p.m. ET by Mike Chiari
Although they were without leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Philadelphia Flyers due to a back injury, the New Jersey Devils picked up a huge victory and knotted the series at one game apiece.
With that said, though, there is no doubt that the Devils are a better team with Kovalchuk on the ice. It isn't yet known if he will be able to suit up on Thursday night, but according to Tom Gulitti of The Record, Kovalchuk is ready and it will come down to what head coach Peter DeBoer decides.
That is somewhat in conflict with what DeBoer told Gulitti, though, as he said that Kovalchuk must know if his own body can handle the intensity of a playoff game and that it will be the barometer for whether or not he'll play.
Ultimately, as expected, DeBoer is considering Kovalchuk a game-time decision.
Because of the depth of scoring that the Flyers possess, the Devils will certainly want their big gun on the ice, so I have to believe that he'll do everything possible to make that a reality.
Update: Tuesday, May 1 at 11:30 a.m. ET
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello announced that Kovalchuk won't play in Tuesday's Game 2, based on a report from Tom Gulitti of The Record:
Lou Lamoriello confirms that Ilya Kovalchuk won't play tonight.— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) May 1, 2012
Lamoriello reportedly didn't provide any further update on the star's status, simply saying he was day-to-day.
What It Means
Although playing Kovalchuk at less than 100 percent clearly wasn't working, losing him from the lineup is a tough pill to swallow for an already inconsistent New Jersey offense. He averaged more than a point per game during the regular season.
His absence will put more pressure on Zach Parise and Patrik Elias to create scoring chances. Elias has struggled in his own right during the postseason with just three points in eight games. The Devils will need far more production from him with Kovalchuk out.
Since Lamoriello wouldn't go into further detail about the injury, it's impossible to know when fans should expect him back in the lineup.
After Tuesday's second game, the Devils and Flyers play on Thursday, followed by a couple of days off ahead of a Sunday clash. Since they are already trailing 1-0 in the series, the Devils can't afford to be without Kovalchuk for too long.
New Jersey relies on a defensive style of play, which should help dampen the impact of the injury for a while, but the offense will struggle to keep pace with Philadelphia if he's out for more than a game or two.
Kovalchuk understands how important every game is right now, so he'll try to get back as soon as possible. His health has to improve enough so that he's able to contribute more than he did in Game 1.