Devils need more from Kovalchuk in Finals

777230.jpg

Devils need more from Kovalchuk in Finals

NEWARK, NJ With so much idle talk and easy generalizations about discontented Russian players in the NHL and their unobserved curfews leading to playoff suspensions, Ilya Kovalchuk is the smiling success story of this years playoffs.

The bona fide Russian superstar shined in an abysmal team situation with the Atlanta Thrashers through the early years of his career, and hopped headlong onto a New Jersey Devils train that ran directly off the tracks last season.

So Kovalchuks dominant offensive play and improved team game were one of the dominant storylines for the Devils during their unlikely march through the Eastern Conference.

His playoff-best five power-play goals bleached out much of the stain left by his countrymen, Nashville Predators Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for their 4 a.m. playoff escapades in the latest episode of Russians Behaving Badly.

But the feel-good Russian story hit a bit of a speed bump in Wednesdays overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals at the Prudential Center.

Kovalchuk didnt go berserk and wind up in the penalty box at a pivotal point in the tight contest. He didnt allow the game-winning goal with a low attention span gaffe in the defensive zone. He didnt pull any selfish maneuvers that distracted his Devils away from the task at hand.

Actually, Kovalchuk didnt really do much of anything at all.

Therein lies the problem when one of New Jerseys offensive lightning rods and superior elite talents goes completely invisible in the biggest game of his career. That simply cant happen.

Ten years of toil and struggle in the NHL turned into one very forgettable performance that now sets the tone for the Devils in the series. The same guy that scored 37 goals during the regular season, was a point-per-game player and leveled 310 shots on goal in 77 games for the Devils squeezed off only a single shot on net in defeat.

Kovalchuk admitted nerves before and after Game 1, and his coach was willing to give him a pass.

This is a huge deal. It doesnt matter whether you played in this situation before. Patrik Elias hasnt been there in nine years. Kovalchuk has never been there before, said Pete DeBoer. So that doesnt surprise me. It doesnt surprise me that we dealt with some of that nervousness early in the game.

I thought as the game progressed that we kind of got through that. Now thats in the rear-view mirror and we can just play.

It was difficult to gauge Kovalchuks progress because he never really got moving.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound forward was a non-factor physically with no hits, no blocked shots and nothing even remotely resembling a physical presence in a playoff season when even Alex Semin was jumping in front of slap shots.

Both teams are in the same spot being in the Cup Finals so its a bad excuse, Kovalchuk told reporters after the Game 1 defeat. So we have to be ready at start of the game.

And by we Kovalchuk probably meant me in just about every way. He clearly wasnt alone as his New Jersey offensive bookend, Zach Parise, was similarly held off the scoreboard against the Kings.

But Parise was at least around the net stirring things up and trying to be a presence while Kovalchuk was a ghost in the shell.

Granted the Russian sniper has stepped up his defensive game and has even been killing penalties this year in something of an unfamiliar departure. Thats part of the reason the Devils have managed to push their way through the Eastern Conference wreckage, and for that he deserves credit.

Its just more of a commitment to understanding that you have to play a 200-foot game at this time of year in order to win, said DeBoer. Everybodys going to do it. The good teams that survive this long dont get here unless everyones committed to doing that.

Kovalchuk is definitely getting better. He still has some work to do, but hes making that commitment.

Kovalchuks minus-4 rating in 18 playoff games isnt exactly a shining beacon of defensive play, and thats what DeBoer is alluding to by hinting that he can definitely keep getting better.

But at the same time lets all be honest about Kovalchuk.

Hes averaged more than 40 goals a season in the NHL and hes paid a gargantuan contract to put points up on the board in an endless supply. His biggest task is turning the New Jersey power play into a lethal weapon that even Mel Gibson could love a huge factor for the Devils if they hope to beat a dominant Kings bunch.

That didnt happen in Game 1 because of nerves or the greatness of the Los Angeles defensegoaltending, or perhaps a combination of both focusing attention on Operation Shutdown Kovalchuk.

One thing is certain moving forward, however: Kovalchuk needs to settle his nerves and start filling up the net, or it could be a very short Stanley Cup trip for Jerseys finest hockey club.

Bruins hope OT win was sign of things to come offensively

Bruins hope OT win was sign of things to come offensively

BOSTON -- For a team where offense has been a major problem area this season, lighting the lamp four times against the Florida Panthers on Monday night was a welcomed sight for the Bruins indeed.

The Bruins won it in dazzling fashion with a 4-3 overtime win on a David Pastrnak rush to the net after he totally undressed D-man Mike Matheson on his way to the painted area, and then skill took over for him easily beating Roberto Luongo with a skate-off goal.

That was the game-breaker doing his thing and finishing with a pair of goals in victory, and continuing to push a pace that has the 20-year-old right wing on track for more than 40 goals this season.

That would give the Bruins just their fourth 40-goal scorer in the last 25 years of franchise history (Glen Murray in 2002-03, Bill Guerin in 2001-02 and Cam Neely in 1993-94), and mark one of the bigger reasons behind an expected offensive surge that may just be coming for a Black and Gold group currently ranked 23rd in the league in offense.

They just hope that the four strikes vs. Florida is indeed a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the season after serving as just the eighth time in just 26 games this season that they scored more than two goals.

“[There have been] a lot of tight games and low-scoring games, you’re right. It’s good, but as a goalie, I’m not happy when I let in three goals, ever. But it’s great to see that scoring support,” said Tuukka Rask. “When you get four goals, you expect to win, and a lot of times when we get three, I expect to win. It’s great to see [an uptick in scoring].”

So what is there to be optimistic about from a B’s offensive perspective aside from Pastrnak blowing up for a couple more goals to keep pace among the NHL league leaders with Sidney Crosby and Patrick Laine?

Well, the Bruins are starting to see results from crashing to the front of the net, attacking in the offensive zone and finally finishing off plays after serving as one of the best puck possession teams in the league over the first few months.

Just look at how the goals were scored, and how the Bruins are working in closer to the net rather than settling for perimeter plays.

The first goal on Monday night was a result of Tim Schaller crashing down the slot area for a perfectly executed one-timer feed from David Krejci. Similarly David Pastrnak was hanging around in front of the net in the second period when a no-look, spinning Brad Marchand dish from behind the net came his way, and he wasn’t going to miss from that range against Roberto Luongo. Then David Backes parked his big body in front of the Florida net in the third period, and redirected a Ryan Spooner shot up and over Luongo for the score that got the Bruins into overtime.

It’s one of a couple of goals scored by Backes down low recently, and his third goal in the last five games as he heats up with his playmaking center in Krejci. The 32-year-old Backes now has seven goals on the season and is on pace for 26 goals after a bit of a slow start, and the offense is coming for that line as they still search for balance in their two-way hockey play.

“A few more guys are feeling [better] about their games, and know that we’re capable of putting a crooked number up like that. It bodes well moving forward,” said Backes. “But you can’t think that we’re going to relax after the effort that we put in. We’ve got to skill to those dirty areas and still get those second and third chances, and not take anything off during those opportunities. It’s got to go to the back of the net.

“With the way Tuukka has played, and our defense has been stingy and our penalty kill has been on, four goals should be a win for our team. It hasn’t always been easy for us this year. It’s been a process, but I think you’re starting to see the things that you need to see in order for us to score goals. We’re going to the front of the net and getting extended offensive zone time, and then you find a few guys like Pasta in the slot. That’s a good recipe for us.”

Then there’s Ryan Spooner, who enjoyed his best game of the season on Monday night and set up the B’s third goal of the game with his speed and creativity. It was noticeable watching Spooner play with his unbridled skating speed and creative playmaking, and it made a discernible difference in Boston’s overall offensive attack against Florida. It’s something that Claude Julien is hoping to see more of moving forward from Spooner after recent trade rumors really seemed to spark the 23-year-old center, and also knocked some of the inconsistency from a player that’s extremely dangerous offensively when he’s “on.”

“It’s obvious that if Ryan wants to give us those kinds of games, then we have lots of time for him. When he doesn’t we just can’t afford to give him that kind of ice time,” said Julien. “There are games where he hasn’t been as involved, and it’s obvious and apparent to everybody that when he’s not getting involved then he’s not helping our team. When he is playing the way he did yesterday, we can certainly use that player more than not. We’d love to see him get consistent with those kinds of games.”

So while it’s clear the Bruins aren’t completely out of the woods offensively and there are still players like Patrice Bergeron sitting below their usual offensive numbers, it’s also been a little mystifying to watch Boston struggle so much offensively given their talent level.

The Black and Gold fully realized that potential in taking a tough divisional game from Florida on Monday night, and they hope it’s something to build on as the schedule doesn’t let up at all in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, Dec. 6: The Bruins-Panthers connection

Tuesday, Dec. 6: The Bruins-Panthers connection

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while Dave Dombrowski is collecting stars and talent over at Fenway Park. I dig it.

*Interesting piece about switching teams in the NHL and leaving behind old allegiances when the job calls for it.

*FOH (Friend of Haggs) Harvey Fialkov looks at the connections between the Bruins and the Florida Panthers, and more specifically with the Panthers and the Boston-area.

*A rumor round-up across the NHL including the humorous nugget that the Bruins are looking to move Jimmy Hayes. Yes, they are looking to move Hayes. They are begging some other NHL team to take on the player and the contract for somebody that has one point since last February. It’s not happening.

*Escrow is at the heart of the next negotiation between the NHL and the NHLPA, and I really thought it was going to be years before I’d have to even think about the CBA again.

*Tough break for the Florida Panthers losing Keith Yandle for a long period of time after he was injured last night vs. the Bruins. FOH (Friend of Haggs) Mike Halford has the story at Pro Hockey Talk.

*Wild coach Bruce Boudreau talks his “bucket list”, which includes a lot of movies and even a stint as a movie reviewer for the Manchester Union Leader back in the day.

*Sounds like Pat Maroon might want to sit out the next few plays after calling hockey a “man’s game” among other things.

*For something completely different: Yup, I’m pretty okay with the Red Sox blowing up the prospect cupboard for Chris Sale.