Eastern Conference Semifinal Series (Devils lead series 2-1)
Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils
Before he was sidelined for Game 2 with an injury, Ilya Kovalchuk had been facing quite a bit of criticism for his play in the postseason. There should be no such criticism following Thursday's game.
Kovalchuk returned to the Devils lineup for Game 3 and was one of the best players on the ice during their 4-3 win, which ended in overtime on an Alexei Ponikarovsky goal. During one particular 20-second stretch in the first period Kovalchuk assisted on a Patrik Elias power play goal, and then followed that up on the very next shift with a goal of his own (shown above) to give New Jersey a 2-1 lead.
Perhaps even more impressive was his presence on the ice during a pair of penalty kills in overtime. Kovalchuk was one of New Jersey's regulars on the penalty kill during the regular season (and did an outstanding job, actually finishing the season as a plus-player during 4-on-5 situations) and the fact coach Pete DeBoer trusted him to be on the ice in that situation has to speak volumes about his confidence in Kovalchuk as an all-around player, as well as his improvement. It's hard to imagine him being used in a similar situation four or five years ago.
In the end, Kovalchuk impacted the game in all situations on Thursday, assisting on a power play goal, scoring an even-strength goal, and getting key time on the penalty kill.
That's a big time performance.
This game started off with a similar feel to Game 2. The Flyers scored first, and then soon after New Jersey took over and dominated possession, keeping Philadelphia's offensive attack pinned in its own zone. During an interview with NBC analyst Pierre McGuire shortly after the Flyers took the lead in the first period, DeBoer came out and simply said "the best defense against this team is to make them play in their own end."
And just as they did in Game 2, that's exactly what New Jersey did for extended periods of time on Thursday. Not long after DeBoer made that statement the Devils spent minutes at a time on the attack, and then finally broke through with the two quick goals mentioned above.
A second consecutive strong showing by the Devils.
The Devils are a team that has a reputation for being a boring, defense first team, mainly due to the way they went about winning games in the previous decade. But they haven't shown that style of play in this series against Philadelphia. In each of the past two games they've been able to take it to the Flyers and attack, especially during even-strength play, controlling possession in the offense zone.