EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It shouldn’t be any kind of a shock at this point in the proceedings. Still, it always seems just a little incongruous to see Ilya Kovalchuk on the ice in the waning moments of a game in which the New Jersey Devils are protecting a lead.
In the old days, of course, if Kovalchuk was on the ice in that situation, it meant he’d slipped over the boards while Bob Hartley or any of the other NHL coaches he has played under happened to be looking the other way.
That Pete DeBoer has for a long time shown no hesitation in using Kovalchuk thusly, that he trusts him to do the right thing, get the puck out of danger, not get caught behind the play, is merely a reflection of his significant maturation as a player and a person.
It was so again in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, when Kovalchuk and linemates Zach Parise and Travis Zajac enjoyed their best game of the series as the Devils squeaked out a 2-1 victory to set up a sixth game in Los Angeles on Monday night.
We had a chance to chat with Kovalchuk’s longtime pal from their shared days in Atlanta, Dany Heatley, not long ago, and DeBoer’s confidence in Kovalchuk was not lost on Heatley.
Neither was he surprised by any of it.
Heatley recalled a visit with Kovalchuk before Kovalchuk was traded to the New Jersey Devils at the 2010 trade deadline. Usually it was the two friends hanging out having dinner. But on this night, Kovalchuk had his wife and children in tow.
"It kind of hit me that he’s grown up," Heatley said. "I think you see that [maturity] in his game, too.
"The guy’s had such a great career."
Perhaps because he played on teams that weren’t high profile or Cup contenders, as was the case first in Atlanta and then when he first arrived in New Jersey, his accomplishments have been underappreciated, Heatley suggested.
Now a member of the Minnesota Wild, Heatley will always remember with great fondness breaking into the NHL with Kovalchuk in Atlanta.
Kovalchuk was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, a year after Heatley was the second overall pick. They roomed together, and it was Heatley who would regularly order food -- either in restaurants or via room service -- for Kovalchuk, whose English still needed some work.
Former GM Don Waddell likewise has memories about Kovalchuk and his evolution from a shy Russian teen to the family man he has become today.
Even from the moment he met Kovalchuk before drafting him, Waddell said he was impressed with Kovalchuk’s knowledge of the NHL game.
"He’d done his homework and followed the NHL. To me that just showed his whole passion, not just for his game, but to play in the NHL," Waddell said.
Although Kovalchuk might not have been a defensive stalwart, Waddell said he never once had to sit Kovalchuk down to ask him to work harder. Sometimes people misconstrue a lack of defensive responsibility with a lack of effort, Waddell said. They are separate qualities.
Off the ice, Waddell recalled that when tailors would come by the practice rink to offer specially-made suits to the players, Kovalchuk made sure that the training staff would also get suits made and that he would pick up the tab.
"Kovy’s a very generous person," Waddell said. "I’m proud of him. I’m proud of him as a person."
Humble Henrique in the middle of it all
Now, in the middle of the Stanley Cup finals, the last place you might expect to find many NHL rookies will be under a pile of opposing players with his nose in the opposing team’s crease.
But in many ways Henrique isn’t like most NHL rookies.
The Calder Trophy nominee as rookie of the year was, of course, the hero in Game 4, scoring on a delightful play late in the third period to give the Devils a 3-1 victory.
We talked to Henrique’s old Windsor Spitfires teammate Ryan Ellis in the wake of that goal and he said what struck him about Henrique’s play was the matter-of-fact nature of the aftermath.
He didn’t launch himself into the glass. He didn’t ride his stick like a pony a la Tiger Williams but merely skated back toward the bench with his arms stretched in the air.
"It was typical Henrique," Ellis, now with the Nashville Predators, told ESPN.com. "I can’t say I’m really too surprised."
While in Windsor, Henrique might not have had the highest profile on a team chock full of top-end players such as Taylor Hall, who went first overall to the Oilers in the 2010 draft, or Ellis, who was the 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Henrique wasn’t selected until the 82nd pick in the 2008 draft and started this season in the minors before assuming significant responsibilities with the Devils.
"That’s how he plays," Ellis said. "He kind of leads by example. He’s always calm and cool."
And if there wasn’t much attention paid to him while in junior hockey, "he sure deserves it now," Ellis said.