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.