Ilya Kovalchuk has received endless praise for becoming a more complete player, but with the New Jersey Devils trailing the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup final they need the Russian sniper to start doing what he does best — score goals.
Kovalchuk, who spurned the Kings’ advances to sign a 15-year US$100 million deal with the Devils two years ago, led New Jersey in scoring during the regular season and leads all playoff scorers with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists).
However, the Russian was missing from the score sheet in the first game of the best-of-seven final on Wednesday and had just one shot on goal in the 2-1 overtime loss.
Having lost the series opener in their previous two series there was no panic in the New Jersey locker room, but plenty of frustration after failing to deliver their best effort.
Kovalchuk did not promise goals, but did guarantee a better effort for yesterday’s Game 2 as a desperate Devils team try to avoid falling into a 2-0 hole against a Kings team that have yet to lose on the road this postseason.
“We know we didn’t play our best game in the first one so we have to go out there and work hard and be better,” Kovalchuk told reporters after an upbeat practice on Friday. “You can’t force things in the Stanley Cup final, you can’t take too many chances. If the team wins, that’s all that matters.”
The Devils managed just 17 shots on goal in Game 1 and will need to direct more rubber at Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who has been the best netminder in the playoffs having given up two or fewer goals in 13 of 15 postseason contests.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer refuses to put that responsibility on Kovalchuk’s shoulders alone, but a few more shots and a goal or two in Game 2 would no doubt be welcome.
“Our identity is a four-line team,” DeBoer said. “Kovy is a piece of that, but he’s not the team ... that’s how we’re built, I don’t think that’s why we’ve had success.”
“We’re capable of surviving on nights when he doesn’t score or isn’t at the top of his game, just like we’re capable of surviving nights that [Patrik] Elias or [Zach] Parise or other guys aren’t.”
Kovalchuk has bought into the Devils team-first concept this season by improving his defensive game and even spending time on the penalty-killing unit.
However, it is his ability to score goals that will be key if the Devils are to deny the Kings a maiden Stanley Cup.
“When you weigh 225 pounds [102kg] and you can shoot the puck and skate the way he can, that’s talent,” said Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, who engineered the Kovalchuk deal. “We’ve never had an opportunity to draft a player of that magnitude.”
Despite pressure to score, Kovalchuk maintained he would not deviate from the routine he has followed all season.
He will go through the same preparation, get the same rest and hope for a different outcome when the series resumes.
“You have to do the right things everywhere,” Kovalchuk said. “Every little thing makes a big difference. Every back check, forecheck, blocked shot, everything counts.”