Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk looks to bring ‘A’ game Saturday against Kings

NEWARK, N.J. – Ilya Kovalchuk isn’t sure what happened in the early minutes of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. But the Devils’ US$100-million man didn’t play up to par.

Kovalchuk, like the rest of the slow-starting Devils, came on as the game progressed. But for a thoroughbred winger, with great speed and a snap shot, it was an off night.

In 21 minutes 13 seconds of ice time against the Los Angeles Kings, the 29-year-old Russian put one shot on goalie Jonathan Quick. Another shot was blocked and a third missed the target in New Jersey’s 2-1 overtime loss.

“I don’t know,” Kovalchuk said. “The puck was kind of bouncing, I couldn’t handle the puck and stuff. And they really didn’t give us much room, there were right on top of us.”

Devils coach Peter DeBoer says Kovalchuk was not alone in underperforming Wednesday.

“He’s on a long list there. I think if you asked our group, there’s a lot of guys on that list,” he said ahead of Saturday’s Game 2.

The Devils have worked hard to ensure that they do not live and die by their sleek sniper who has averaged more than a point an outing in his 779 regular season games with Atlanta and New Jersey.

Depth is the key to New Jersey, which separated Kovalchuk from captain Zach Parise to spread the offensive wealth.

“I think our identity is a four-line team,” DeBoer explained. “Kovy is a piece of that, but he’s not the team. I don’t think that’s how we’re built. I don’t think that’s why we’ve had success.

“You know, 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 Parise or other guys aren’t. I think that’s the strength of our team.”

Parise plays with Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus, a line that has produced 17 goals in these playoffs. Kovalchuk, Elias and Adam Henrique have combined for 14 goals.

Kovalchuk does play the point on the power plays to get his offensive skills on the ice with the man-advantage.

Devils backup goalie Johan Hedberg, who played with him in Atlanta, speaks highly of the six-foot-two 225-pound Russian.

“People have a lot of thoughts about who they think he is and they’ve all been wrong,” said Hedberg. “I know that.

“People thought he was a one-dimensional player. I always get asked if he’s evolved his game. I say, you know what, I always think that he had it. It’s just the role is different, the supporting cast is different and obviously he’s probably matured a little bit too.

“But I think at times in Atlanta, he felt like he had to do more than everybody else. Instead of doing his part and the rest of the team doing their part. Now he knows that he’s surrounded by great players and all he’s asked to do is bring his best game.”

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DeBoer shares that view, saying players like Kovalchuk are “so gifted and so good that a lot of times they are capable of doing things on their own.

“You get to this time of year, it’s all team and team game. Those individual skills usually get either totally eliminated or checked into the ground.

“It was something we worked at all year and I think he’s responded very well and we wouldn’t be here without his game the way it is.”

To succeed in the playoffs, players must play “a 200-foot game,” the coach adds.

“He’s definitely getting better. He still has work to do, but he’s making that commitment.”

Kovalchuk, who had 37 goals and 46 assists in 77 games this season, has even seen penalty kill time.

“Early in the season we just felt that he was playing well,” DeBoer said. “We wanted to give him that opportunity in that situation. One of the side effects of that was I think it helped his defensive game, and so did he.

“That wasn’t the reason to do it, but it was a nice side effect.”

Kovalchuk, who is working on a 15-year, $100-million contract, has been in the spotlight early in the series. For one reason, the Kings were also interested in him in 2009 as a free agent after he was traded to New Jersey following almost eight seasons and 338 goals in Atlanta.

Kovalchuk has been close to the Cup before, but only at a Stanley Cup party in Moscow when defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky brought the trophy home after winning it in 2003 with the Devils.

He didn’t touch the Cup.

“It was nice but it wasn’t my party,” he said. “Why would I go touch it? He’s got enough buddies who want to touch it.”

Despite the Devils’ start to the Cup, Kovalchuk says he is enjoying the long playoff ride.

He looks the part of a playoff warrior, a full beard covering his face and a cut on his nose only now beginning to heal.

“It is a lot of fun,” he said. “That’s what you dream of.

“When you play you always want to be successful and it’s not easy to get here.”

Kovalchuk learned that the hard way. In all his time with Atlanta, he made the post-season once and that lasted just four games.