Playoff stage awaits Ilya Kovalchuk

ATLANTA -- Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell was standing in a hallway outside the Thrashers' dressing room at Philips Arena on Tuesday morning next to a big framed picture of former star Ilya Kovalchuk pumping his fist in celebration.

Waddell, of course, was talking about Kovalchuk's first return to Philips Arena since being traded to the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 4.

This was more than a homecoming, though, as Kovalchuk and the Devils had a chance to put the final nail in the Thrashers' playoff coffin.

The Thrashers, who trailed the eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers by three points with three games to play heading into action Tuesday, needed to beat the Devils to stay in the hunt regardless of whether the former face of the franchise is playing for them or not.

"I've got to tell you, quite honestly, this game is so important that the Ilya thing is, to me, not even on the radar," Thrashers coach John Anderson said Tuesday before Atlanta's 3-0 loss to New Jersey ended its playoff hopes.

Still, Kovalchuk's return to the only NHL rink he had called home until the trade put the differences between the two franchises -- and just how much Kovalchuk's future has changed in recent months -- into sharp focus.

For a long time this season, it looked as if Kovalchuk would sign a long-term extension to stay with the Thrashers, who made him the first overall pick in 2001. But Kovalchuk turned down a 12-year deal worth $101 million, as well as a $70 million deal for seven years. As a result, Waddell ended up trading the scoring star to surprise partner New Jersey for Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft pick. The Devils also picked up defenseman Anssi Salmela in the deal.

Meanwhile, Kovalchuk is preparing to head to the playoffs for just the second time in his career. His first and only postseason experience was painfully brief, as he and the Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in 2007.

Set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Kovalchuk said Tuesday that his future is just ahead of him, which is how he likes it.

"I know what my future is. I'm going to go to the playoffs, and we've got a great team. That's my closest future," Kovalchuk said. "I'm not a guy who thinks a couple of years ahead. I take [it] one day at a time."

The prospect of gearing up for a playoff run is a nice change from what he had grown accustomed to in Atlanta, he said.

"It's nice. That's why we play hockey, to win," he said. "You don't want to finish every year in the middle of the April and go play [in the] world championships. I've won twice [at the worlds] now. I want to win something different."

One of the NHL's most prolific scorers since the lockout, Kovalchuk has been a point-a-game guy for the Devils, collecting 23 points in his first 23 games. He has scored just nine times in that span, but New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire seems untroubled and said Kovalchuk could have scored a lot more and is getting plenty of chances. Lemaire said he was thinking of pairing Kovalchuk with winger and team captain Jamie Langenbrunner to see whether that would help Kovalchuk's goal production.

Some also wondered whether free-wheeling Kovalchuk would have trouble adapting to the more structured system imposed by Lemaire, but the match seems to have worked, even as the Devils have struggled with their consistency in the post-Olympic schedule. New Jersey hasn't advanced beyond the second round since its Stanley Cup win in 2003.

"Every day I feel better and better because I know the guys better, I know the coaching staff better, the whole organization," Kovalchuk said. "I feel like I've been here forever because we've got an unbelievable group of guys, very kind. They've helped me with everything. I feel very comfortable."

Lemaire admitted being a little surprised at the depth of passion Kovalchuk has for the game.

"He works hard, he wants to win, and maybe that's why I think maybe he's a better player than I thought he was. He wants to win so much. He enjoys the game, which I didn't see that as much as when he wasn't around," the veteran coach and Hall of Fame player said. "He's a real player. He's a guy that he wants to improve. He wants to do well. He wants the team to win. He's not selfish; those things that you don't know when the guy's away. And then when they come in, sometimes you do get some surprises, could be negative or positive. This one was positive, big time."

Where Kovalchuk ends up come July 1 will be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. It seems almost certain no team will pay him the kind of money he turned down in Atlanta, but his value almost certainly will be tied to how he performs in the coming days and weeks for the Devils in the postseason.

In that sense, Kovalchuk and the Devils have a lot to prove. Kovalchuk has to show he is a clutch player who can help a good team go deep in the postseason, and the Devils have to prove they are more than a one-hit wonder come playoff time.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.