Kovalchuk works his magic in Game 3, gives Devils series advantage
Ilya Kovalchuk was superb, scoring three points as New Jersery tipped Philly in OT
When a hockey player shrugs off a bad back and performs well, it's part of the job
New Jersey's relentless pressure forced Philadelphia into various extended shifts
NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk did not accompany the New Jersey Devils to Philadelphia earlier this week, but that doesn't mean he didn't make a side trip to Lourdes when everybody was looking elsewhere. The restorative waters on the other side of the great un-Zamboni-ed pond are said to promote healing better than those of Upper New York Bay, which probably has more to do with public relations than with the purity of the wet stuff in north Jersey.
Anyway, after a so-called therapy day on Monday, a day off on Tuesday when his teammates were whipping the Flyers 75 miles to the south and a skipped practice on Wednesday, a spry Kovalchuk returned for Game 3 at the Prudential Arena in front of an unusually engaged Devils crowd.
And honestly, sometimes it did look like a miracle.
Playing with what the team called "a lower body" injury and what the Star-Ledger of Newark called a herniated disc in his back, Kovalchuk was superb. Retreating to the middle of his own zone late in the first overtime period, Kovalchuk whipped a stretch pass that surgically shredded the Flyers, who were in the midst of a horrible line change. The pass sent in Alexei Ponikarovsky for the winning goal at 17:21 of overtime as the Devils edged Philadelphia, 4-3, to take a 2-1 series lead.
The 100-foot pass represented Kovalchuk's third point of the game. He already had picked up a second assist on New Jersey's first goal, a Patrik Elias power-play blast from the right circle in the first period. Then, 20 seconds later, Kovalchuk delayed at the blue line, belatedly joined the rush and found himself all alone bearing down on the high slot. He gathered a pass from Travis Zajac and whipped a shot past the glove of Flyers' all-universe goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov.
Discovery Channel has Shark Week. Apparently this is Russia Week in the NHL. In a week dominated by Alex Ovechkin's ice time in Washington and Alexander Radulov's bar time outside Phoenix, there was no more noteworthy performance than by Kovalchuk, who, especially early in the contest, appeared rejuvenated despite his debilitating injury.
When Michael Jordan plays with the flu, a nation genuflects (and buys more sneakers). When a hockey player shrugs off the effects of a horribly wonky back and performs splendidly, it is accepted as part of the job description -- just another night at the office. (Or maybe the doctor's office. In the playoffs, you don't blab if you have 102.4 fever or need open-heart surgery.)
His return was supposed to provide the Devils with inspiration.
Instead Kovalchuk, aided by a penalty kill that negated two of Flyers power plays in overtime, gave New Jersey a win.
"You could tell he had jump right off the bat," the Devils' Dainius Zubrus said. "The plays he made and the goal he got early, that really energized him. You could tell even at the morning skate that he had some jump. He was more than an inspiration out there. He scored and was a big part of our power play that clicked. I thought he had a great game."
"A special player," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "At this time of year, no one wants to sit out. Everybody wants to contribute. You could tell that he had more jump to his step and was more confident with the puck (than in Game 1)."
So much has changed in recent years in the Garden State, which the brilliant Princeton-based writer John McPhee once described as the slyest state because it keeps its natural beauty to itself and allows the transients -- maybe McPhee was thinking of some orange fright-bewigged Flyers fans from the Delaware Valley -- to see the eyesores of the Turnpike corridor and continue of their merry way.
For one thing, Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder who fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship in 1975, was introduced on the scoreboard in the second period (to warm if not resounding applause) as the Bayonne Brawler, a euphemism that surely tickled the 73-year-old Wepner. For another, the Devils, who philosophically cut their teeth as a trapping team in the mid-1990s, have long since burst from their chrysalis into one of the most aggressive forechecking teams in the Eastern Conference -- at least when they fully commit to it.
For some inexplicable reason, New Jersey became circumspect as the opener wore on but brought the heat in Game 2. In Game 3 the Devils, despite an iffy Brayden Schenn short-side goal that eluded venerable New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, owned the first period. The ice look tilted. The shift length times were the most vivid indicator in the disparity in offensive zone time. The Flyers had four forwards whose average shift length exceeded 50 seconds, not because Wayne Simmonds, Max Talbot, Eric Wellwood and Jakub Voracek craved extra ice but because, even in a period with the short change, they simply could not get to the bench in the face of relentless New Jersey pressure. (The Devils had one forward with plus 50-second shift length, David Clarkson.)
The Flyers pushed back, however, controlling the puck and negating the forecheck for all of the second period and much of the third, a period which could have sent the crowd streaming into the Newark night at a more sensible hour if the Devils had cashed some chances and Brodeur had not yielded a suspect rebound goal to the estimable Daniel Brière that would send the game to overtime. Kovalchuk had the best chance himself, a fake-'em-out-of-their-paraphernalia toe drag in which he wound up hitting the post. He also made an especially sweet saucer pass to Zajac, one that his center could not convert from point-blank range.
But winning whitewashes everything, including a vulnerable Brodeur and circumspection by the Devils after they grabbed a lead. For New Jersey, the news was not Kovalchuk's back but that Kovalchuk was back.
"I was well-rested," Kovalchuk said. "I had two days off, which is always good, so sometimes you've got to take one step back to take two steps forward. You know, there was a little pressure there too when they guys played so well in Game 2, and you don't want to get back in the lineup just because you want to play. You just want to get the feeling right away, and play the way they did in Game 2. And I think we did that, and we got a win."