Seeking fresh start vs. Flyers
Kovy eager, anxious for new playoff experience
|Parise says Lemaire has Devils prepared for the playoffs.|
The expectations are very different this time around.
Now a Devil, Kovalchuk is one of the players that will be counted on Wednesday when New Jersey hosts the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Kovalchuk is only looking forward – not back at that first-round sweep by the Rangers in 2007.
“To be honest with you, I don’t like to think about what happened before, especially since we didn’t win a game,” Kovalchuk said after Tuesday’s practice. “It still was a good experience, and I was only  at the time, so it was a little different. Now I’m more mature.”
A 41-goal scorer this season, Kovalchuk has 621 career games under his belt, and cited the role that World Championship and Olympic appearances have had on his development.
“This is my second opportunity to play in the playoffs, and you want to show your best, for sure,” he said. “You have to do everything to win the game. If everybody’s going to be on the same page and give what the coach is asking, we’re going to be in good shape.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t be just a little anxious for the 7:30 p.m. puck drop at Prudential Center.
“I’m nervous before every game,” he said. “You have to be, a little bit, before the first faceoff. When the puck drops, all the nerves go away and you just focus on the game.”
The left winger is hoping to have a lasting impact.
"I think everybody wants to raise his game and that’s a big challenge for anybody," he said. "In the playoffs, I think we have a great team, and we have a great chance."
Jamie Langenbrunner has been through the playoff battles, collecting rings with Dallas in 1999 and the Devils in 2003. Always one to watch in the postseason, the Devils’ captain believes Kovalchuk can be a difference maker, though he won't be the only weapon in the team's loaded arsenal.
“Time will tell,” Langenbrunner said. “He’s obviously new to the playoffs. He’s been there once and it didn’t go so well his first time. He’s an extremely gifted player, and he’s excited to be a part of the playoffs. I think you’re going to see a lot of excitement and a lot of energy out of him, but I don’t think we as a team are looking to him to carry us.”
Besides Kovalchuk, another new face for the Devils in this postseason is that of Jacques Lemaire, who guides the club into the playoffs for the first time since 1998. He led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995, returned last summer and has them thinking positive in 2010.
“He does a good job making players feel good about themselves and about their game heading into the playoffs and what is expected of each guy,” said Zach Parise. “Just from the talks we’ve had, you know what they want from you and I think it makes it a little easier. He’s good at getting a lot out of players and getting a lot out of teams, as we showed earlier this year when we had injuries. I think he’s made us really prepared for this.”
The Devils, though, are facing an opponent that gave them trouble during the regular season. They dropped five of six to the Flyers in the season series, but spoke Tuesday about throwing past records out the window.
“I think we have to be better, but we don’t really care what happened between us and them in the regular season,” Parise said. “I think we’re playing a lot better now than we were any time that we played them.”
There’s also the matter of putting last year’s difficult first-round loss to Carolina behind them. New Jersey blew a 3-2 lead in Game 7, allowing two goals in the final 1:20 of regulation.
“There’s not much you can do about what happened a year ago,” Martin Brodeur said. “You try to build something new. Every time you have a chance, you can build something great.”
To Langenbrunner, the Devils must follow the formula that produced three titles in nine seasons from 1994-95 to 2002-03. It begins with the right frame of mind, something he says the players have already discussed.
“You pride yourself on winning big games,” Langenbrunner said. “This organization had done that very well for a long stretch, probably a little spoiled in how many Finals [we were in] and to expect it here and got away from the mindset that it takes to do it. It’s not easy. It’s a big sacrifice and you have to go with that mindset. We’ve talked a lot about that.”
With the Devils seven years removed from their last Stanley Cup, Brodeur said the gap in success feels familiar. It reminds him of the years between the first and second Cups, when the team struggled in the playoffs before reaching the summit again.
They went on to three Finals appearances in four years.
“I guess we’re at that crossroad now,” Brodeur said. “You have guys that are getting older, guys that were a little young their first few experiences, now I think they know what to expect a little more. And you have guys who are at the end and want to relive it again.”
It’s been nearly a calendar year since the Game 7 loss to Carolina. With a new postseason set to start, the Devils have a new shot at a championship run.
“When you lose that last game, you think to yourself, you’ve got to play another 82 to get back,” Parise said. “It’s nice. This is always a fun part of the year. It’s nice for it to be starting [Wednesday].”
Brodeur is in the early stages of growing his playoff beard, but pointed out, “It didn’t start yet and it’s already itchy. It’s not good for my baby, I can’t kiss him. He’s crying all the time when I get close to him.”