Newark, N.J. – It took Ilya Kovalchuk only 49 seconds to snap a nine-game scoreless streak and ignite the Devils in New Jersey’s 4-1 win over the Rangers Tuesday.
The 28-year-old forward dominated virtually every shift he took, outshining the league-leading Rangers and fueling New Jersey to knock off their rivals in a much-needed bounceback game.
Following Sunday’s listless 1-0 shutout loss to the Islanders, Kovalchuk tallied his 26th of the season on a breakaway less than a minute into play.
Defenseman Mark Fayne forced a turnover at the red line and captain Zach Parise fed Kovalchuk for an early 1-0 lead against the Rangers.
Before the night was over, Kovalchuk chipped in with an assist on Ryan Carter’s third-period marker to seal the win against the Devils’ Atlantic Division rivals.
“From the first goal on the first shift right through the end of the game I thought he was the best player on the ice,” said coach Pete DeBoer, “and that’s what we need out of him.”
Goaltender Martin Brodeur, who made 25 saves to out-duel Rangers nemtinder Henrik Lundqvist, said Kovalchuk’s intensity level was palpable from the start.
He appeared revved up by the rivalry, Brodeur said.
“Tonight, you could see how pumped up he was to play the Rangers,” Brodeur said. “I think he’s taking this rivalry in stride. He’s going to be here a long time. He’s got to learn how to hate them a little bit. You could see how pumped up he was for the game and it showed the way he played.”
Concurrent with the team’s struggled – the Devils entered Tuesday’s match having dropped five of their previous six games – Kovalchuk has been limited of late.
Before his first-period strike Tuesday, the Russian sniper had been held without a goal since recording a hat trick February 14 in the team’s 4-1 win against Buffalo.
Kovalchuk said he was heartened by the chances he was still able to create during the drought, but admitted his relief in finally breaking through with the Eastern Conference standings so tight and only a month left to play.
“It was a big game for us. We weren’t sharp against the Islanders. This is a big rivalry, obviously, and we were desperate for the points,” he said.
With Tuesday's win, the Devils pulled within two points of the 5th place Flyers in the East and put a dent – albeit small – on the Rangers’ sizeable division lead.
Brodeur, who called Kovalchuk “a big horse,” said his ability to log hefty minutes and dominate play should help the Devils should the team reach the post-season.
“If we get into the playoffs, I think it will be to our benefit to have a guy that can take charge of the game,” he said.
His abilities can take opponents by surprise. Sometimes even his own teammates, too.
“He’s a world-class player and he’s playing to it right now,” said Carter, who finished with a goal and an assist. “Sometimes you sit on the bench and catch yourself watching as a fan. He’s a good player --entertaining --and the kind of guy you want wearing the same jersey you wear.”