NEWARK, N.J. – When he took the ice Thursday morning, Ilya Kovalchuk felt good. His so-called lower-body injury – reportedly a herniated disc – had responded to rest, therapy and whatever secrets a medical staff conjures up in the heat of the playoffs.
"A little magic," he told reporters with a smile.
And when he took the ice Thursday night, Kovalchuk made a little magic himself. After producing a goal and an assist in regulation, he pulled a trick to set up the winning goal in overtime, giving the New Jersey Devils a 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers and a 2-1 lead in their second-round series.
Kovalchuk held the puck inside the New Jersey zone. He noticed teammate Alexei Ponikarovsky coming off the bench while the Flyers were making a line change, and he made what coach Pete DeBoer called "a world-class play," whipping a gorgeous pass through the open space up the middle of the rink. Ponikarovsky broke in on a 2-on-1 – shot, rebound, score.
But Kovalchuk didn't just notice the line change.
He baited it.
"He cradles it in his stick, and he's almost going away from the play," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur. "He saw Pony come off the bench maybe two seconds before, and after that, he never looked at him. He just turned around and fired the pass right on his stick. That's the type of skill that he has, and it's fun to watch."
Kovalchuk has always had that type of skill. He just hasn't had much of a chance to show it off in the playoffs. He spent the first seven-plus seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers, scoring gobs of goals but making the playoffs only once – and getting swept. He went to the Devils before the trade deadline in 2010 and made the playoffs again, but he lasted only five games that time.
Then came the 15-year, $100 million contract and debacle that was last season. He was scratched for a game. The team stunk. Coach Paul MacLean got fired. Replacement Jacques Lemaire helped Kovalchuk and his teammates recover. Still, the Devils missed the playoffs.
This season Kovalchuk showed what he could be. He scored 37 goals, tied for sixth-most in the NHL. He put up 83 points, fifth-most in the league. Though he was minus-9, that wasn't bad for a guy who had already been a career minus-101. None of his numbers were career bests, but all of them came in a new context.
"What I've seen with him grow and come is team approach, and his desire to want to have success as a team," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told me late in the regular season. "You can see everything that he's doing.
"Whether it's just line changes, whether it's his commitment to the team, whether it's sticking up for teammates, all the things that you need to do, he's done consistently. And it's not that he couldn't do it, but he was in a different situation before he came [to New Jersey] with reference to the things he had to do for his team to have success. He's now playing with different types of players in a different situation."
Kovalchuk logged lots of ice time in the regular season – averaging 24:26 per game, most among NHL forwards. He continued to do so in the first round against the Florida Panthers and in the first game against Philly, and he had three goals and six points. But the back bothered him more and more, until it was obvious something was wrong. He had to shut it down.
"It was difficult decision," he said.
After making all that progress, after making it to the second round for the first time in his career, Kovalchuk stayed home while his teammates played on the road Tuesday night in Game 2. He was nervous watching the game with his wife and a couple of friends. He put his daughter to bed, came back and saw rookie Adam Larsson tie the game, 1-1, early in the third period.
"I didn't watch a lot of hockey after that," he said. "My wife told me that we won [4-1], and it was good. It was a little good luck that I didn't sit in front of the TV."
Though Kovalchuk felt good enough to play Game 3, he knew that wasn't good enough. He had watched his teammates outwork and outplay the favored Flyers without him, and he didn't want to throw off their rhythm. He didn't want to come back for the sake of coming back. He wanted to come back and contribute to the team.
"He was very motivated to get back in and not disrupt the lineup and what the guys accomplished in Game 2," DeBoer said. "I knew he was going to have a positive effect on the game."
That he did. He earned a secondary assist on the Devils' first goal, a sharp shot by Patrik Elias that tied the game, 1-1, on the power play in the first period. He gave the Devils a 2-1 lead just 20 seconds later, beating goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's glove from the right dot on the rush. He flew around the ice all night. Not long before he set up the winner, he made a lap around the Flyers' zone, carrying the puck with ease.
"I felt a lot better compared to almost the whole first series and then the first game of the second series," Kovalchuk said.
This has got to be disheartening and scary for the Flyers.
They had ample chances to win Game 3. Brayden Schenn deflected a Jakub Voracek shot just wide in overtime, and Voracek pinched his fingers together on the bench afterward to show they were oh, so close. They failed to cash in on not one, but two power plays in OT after that.
And though Danny Briere forced overtime with a tying goal in the third period – giving him eight goals this postseason and 50 goals in 106 career playoff games – the Flyers' best players have been generally outclassed by the Devils' best in the past two games.
Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell have gone without a point in back-to-back games. Travis Zajac scored for the Devils on Tuesday night as they rallied without Kovalchuk. Elias, Kovalchuk and captain Zach Parise scored for the Devils on Thursday night and combined for nine points.
All the magic the Flyers generated by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round seems to have gone poof and reappeared elsewhere, at least for the moment.
"It was great treatment by doctors and trainers and a little rest," Kovalchuk said. "Hopefully all I went through is going to go away and I'm going to feel good like I did tonight.”