Kovalchuk continues to silence critics
PHILADELPHIA -- Ilya Kovalchuk was all smiles as he began answering the countless questions that came at him in rapid fire long after the New Jersey Devils had just eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center.
He talked about the excitement of advancing to the conference finals and playing with the team that made it all happen. Kovalchuk did, however, give a few lingering reporters an idea of what exactly he had endured prior to this marvelous run he is now experiencing in his third season in New Jersey.
"For the first time in nine years, I'm not going to the World Championship, so it's fun," the 29-year-old Russian said.
For Kovalchuk, that about sums up a career that had been incomplete -- until this season.
"For Kovy, it's a breakthrough season," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "He's scoring important goals in the hockey game. For him, it's probably a monkey off his back a little bit. He hasn't been on a successful team in his career and it took a while, but now he's getting rewarded. He's making a little push and I'm sure it's nice for him."
Kovalchuk produced his third multiple-point game of the playoffs on Tuesday, and second against the Flyers after notching a goal and one assist in a 3-1 victory. He now has a team-leading 12 points on five goals and seven assists, which is pretty amazing when you consider he entered this year's tournament with more penalty minutes (25) than points (eight) in nine playoffs games prior to this season.
"It's tough because he spent a lot of time in Atlanta where they didn't really make the playoffs for all those years so he never really had an opportunity," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "But he's played great. After healing his injury and getting healthy again, and now this break he'll get, he's been a big part of our team right now."
Kovalchuk was ruled out of Game 2 against the Flyers when he was suffering from a herniated disc in his lower back, but has had two goals and six points since returning to the lineup for Game 3.
"I thought he's played really well and the other teams notice him when he's out there," Devils forward Dainuis Zubrus said. "I think he's bought into the way we play. We try to push the pace and he's in on the forecheck and goes in and finishes his checks all the time. He creates a lot on the power-play too. He's been nothing but great in the locker room and on the ice."
Parise said Kovalchuk's power-play rocket that went top shelf on Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov at the five-minute mark of the third period was certainly clutch. The goal gave the visitors a 3-1 lead.
"It was a huge goal," he said. "I think the excitement when we saw that one go in … that was great and after him taking that game off and getting himself healthy again, he just came back and has been dominant. Once again he got a goal and set up another, and he's played really well."
Devils forward David Clarkson believes Kovalchuk has already silenced anyone who still had doubts of how dominant a player he could be when it mattered most.
"I think he answered it by the way he plays," Clarkson said. "He's scored big goals all playoffs. He's been one of our best players all season I think, and now we just have to keep pushing."
The veteran of 10 NHL seasons led New Jersey in multiple-point games and established an NHL record for game-deciding goals in the regular season -- two areas that led you to believe 'Kovy' was due for a postseason breakout.
"It's obviously better than last year," Kovalchuk said. "It all starts with winning. You can't be happy with yourself even if you score as many goals as you want. You try your best every night, but when the team is winning and everybody is doing well, it helps a lot."
When asked if it felt gratifying to produce in such a big spot, Kovalchuk wouldn't take the bait.
"It feels good, yes, but this is a team effort," Kovalchuk said. "We have played really well to now. But we're not finished. We still have more work to do and we're looking forward to it."
The odds of Kovalchuk becoming the first Russian player to score 500 career goals are pretty strong, considering his contract with the Devils runs through 2025. While that would be quite an accomplishment, it's the big prize he's obviously hoping for in the end.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale