NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk is playing like a man possessed.
A man possessed with confidence.
Kovalchuk’s highlight reel breakaway goal 8:18 into the second period proved to be the difference, as the Devils shutout the New York Rangers, 1-0, on Friday night in front of a sellout crowd at the Prudential Center.
“He’s played really well,” interim coach Jacques Lemaire of Kovalchuk, who now has points in a season-high nine straight games. “Maybe it’s a confidence that he has and the way that he works hard. He works hard, and he’s got the tools.”
It took a while. More time than the Devils expected. But Kovalchuk is starting to display the type of talent New Jersey thought it was getting when it inked the 27-year-old Russian superstar to a 17-year, $100 million contract in the offseason.
“He’s extremely dangerous,” said winning goaltender Johan Hedberg. “He’s been so clutch. I’m so happy for him. He’s excited and it rubs off on the rest of us.”
The Rangers had the puck in the Devils’ zone and were poised to set up an offensive chance, but a pass around the boards jumped over Marc Staal’s stick. And that set up Kovalchuk’s latest game-winning goal.
He picked up the puck in the neutral zone and sped in on Henrik Lundqvist. Earlier in the season, the Devils wouldn’t have been so sure he’d score. But they knew just as well as the Rangers did: the puck was going in the back of the net.
Sure enough, Kovalchuk fired a low snapper that beat Lundqvist glove side, igniting the entire arena with his 21st goal of the season. Kovalchuk pounded his fists in jubilation.
The decibel level in the arena was at a fever pitch. Make no question about it: Ilya Kovalchuk is back.
“At the beginning of the season, I would’ve been gritting my teeth,” veteran center Jason Arnott said. “But now he’s just got that confidence where you know that he’s gonna bury it. He just has that natural gift and he’s playing with so much confidence right now, the whole bench stood up and kind of knew that he was gonna score. It’s a good feeling when he’s scoring and everyone else is chipping in where we can to win hockey games.”
Said Kovalchuk, who notched his third game-winning goal in his last four games: “You don’t hear anything [when you’re on a breakaway]. A forward has more of a chance on a breakaway than on a penalty shot. The goalie can’t really focus. He can try to be ready but you can catch him by surprise.”
Thanks to Kovalchuk’s seventh goal and 11th point in his last nine games, the Devils remained 12 points behind the Carolina Hurricanes, who defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2, on Friday night, for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We just go out there every game and look at it one game at a time,” said Kovalchuk, whose team has won a season-high six straight games, eight of its last nine and 14 of its last 17. “We’re looking to get to .500 as soon as we can and see what happens.”