NEWARK, N.J. – After 10 NHL campaigns, 406 regular-season career goals, nine straight 30-goal years and two world championships with Russia, there is something missing from Ilya Kovalchuk’s resume.
The soon-to-be 29-year-old New Jersey Devils right wing has never won an NHL playoff series. To tell the truth, he has never come close. He has played in nine post-season games, and won just one.
His playoff experience is best defined by handshake after a series and wishing someone else good luck or whatever.
It’s not the way anyone wants to be remembered, especially a No. 1 overall pick who has Hall-of-Fame credentials.
Kovalchuk will try to see the other side of the playoffs over the next two weeks when the Devils face the Panthers in a best-of-7 series that starts in Florida Friday night.
“That’s why you play in the NHL,” Kovalchuk said after practice Wednesday. “That’s why you play hockey to be in those situations where it is all on the line. I am very excited and it will be a lot of fun. We have a great group of guys here, who care about each other a lot and we’ll go there and play like one big family.”
This might be Kovalchuk’s best chance to make a run in the playoffs. While the Devils are the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, they played better this season than the Panthers, who have the home-ice advantage strictly because they won the inferior Southeast Division.
New Jersey finished with more wins (48) and eight more points in the standings (102) than Florida. A year after missing the playoffs, the balanced Devils are no longer a team that has to rely on Kovalchuk.
The Russian led New Jersey with 37 goals and 83 points—fifth best in the league—but he has had help. Plenty of it. Linemate Zach Parise added 31 goals, David Clarkson had a career-high 30, and veterans Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora added 26 and 21, respectively.
“You just have to be yourself,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s a team sport and we have to focus on the team game. We have to pay attention to all the little details. It doesn’t make a difference who scores or who makes a good defensive play.
“Everybody has to chip in to get us to where we want to.”
Kovalchuk hasn’t had much success in the playoffs. He had a goal and an assist in 2006-07 when Atlanta was swept by the Rangers, and he had two goals and four assists in 2009-10, when the Devils were surprised by Philadelphia in five games, a season in which New Jersey acquired him from Atlanta.
It was in that off-season, where Kovalchuk became a free agent and flirted with a few teams—Los Angeles among them—before settling back in with the Devils. He was rewarded with an un-Devil-like 15-year, $100 million deal.
Kovalchuk does not like to look back, though. He enjoyed his time with the Thrashers in Atlanta, even though he played with primarily bad teams. He refused to say what he would have changed in his post-season appearances.
“I am not a guy who is going to look back and say I should have done this or done that,” he said. “You have to look forward always, and it’s Game 1 in two days. I want to keep it in front of me and prepare myself the best I can.
“And then I will go and play my ‘A’ game.”
Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who has helped New Jersey win three Stanley Cups, said Kovalchuk came into the NHL in an era where it was hard for some bad teams to improve.
“He got stuck in Atlanta for a lot of years under a tough situation that they never made the playoffs,” Brodeur said. “Other guys were a lot luckier. Look at Tyler Seguin (in Boston).He was drafted second overall and ends up with the (2011) Stanley Cup championship team. That’s pretty rare that it happens. The top players usually go to the weaker teams.”
Brodeur believes this could be a big run for Kovalchuk, who finished with five goals in his last five games.
“I’m sure for him, it is a huge deal,” Brodeur said. “He loves competing and playing for something and that’s where we will start on Friday.”
Financially strapped—and eventually on their way to Winnipeg—Atlanta dealt Kovalchuk to New Jersey on Feb. 4, 2010 for defenceman Johnny Oduya, forwards Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier, and a first-round choice.
“I like everything that I went through,” he said of his career. “I can’t complain about anything. It was fun and I wasn’t that successful. Now we are winning. It was a lot of great experience and now I am on a team that is going to compete for the Stanley Cup.”
The first step would be knocking off Florida and lining up to shake their hands before moving on.
“It would be nice,” Kovalchuk said. “l’ve never experienced that and hopefully this year will be the first time.”