|Kovalchuk was kept quiet by L.A. Wednesday. (Getty Images)|
It's one of the most common clichés that coaches will turn to, particularly when pressed about an underwhelming performance from a top player: You need your best players at their best. That or any similar derivative about the best players doing what you pay them to do; play better than everybody else on the ice.
For New Jersey that means Ilya Kovalchuk, among other players. The Devils rely on him to give them a lot of offensive production. But in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, he had just one solitary shot on goal in 21:13 of ice time and was pretty unnoticeable overall.
To underscore the importance of Kovalchuk to the Devils, just look at the Devils' games played in the month of May. Kovalchuk recorded at least one point in the seven wins he took part in. That's in contrast to the three pointless games he turned in. Unsurprisingly, New Jersey lost those three games, scoring one goal combined.
Either there's a correlation there or it's one big coincidence.
Of course, Devils coach Peter DeBoer doesn't believe his team comes and goes along with Kovalchuk's performances.
"I think our identity is a four-line team," DeBoer said Friday. "Kovy is a piece of that, but he's not the team. I don't think that's how we're built. I don't think that's why we've had success.
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"You know, we're capable of surviving on nights when he doesn't score or isn't at the top of his game, just like we're capable of surviving nights that [Patrik] Elias or [Zach] Parise or other guys aren't. I think that's the strength of our team."
There's certainly something to that, the Devils do have some skilled lines. One through four they compare pretty favorably to almost any team out there. Still, they are obviously in a better position when Kovalchuk is creating scoring chances more often than Bryce Salvador.
One challenge for Kovalchuk and the Devils in Game 1 appeared to be the defense of Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi, the Kings' top defensive pairing. While they weren't matched against Kovalchuk all game long, when they were they did a very good job of keeping him quiet and out of the plays.
Considering DeBoer gets the last move on line changes as the home coach, he was asked on Friday if he is going to do anything to try and get Kovalchuk away from the Kings' top pair as often as possible.
"The matchup game isn't something that I'm interested in or worried about," DeBoer said. "For me, it isn't relevant.
"[I]f they're matching up against Kovalchuk, then they're not matching up against Parise or other guys."
That brings up the old debate of whether or not a team is best splitting the best players onto two lines or putting them together to make a dominant combo. The Devils have featured both looks this season but elected to split Kovy and Parise against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, and they are here now in the Stanley Cup Final, so obviously the look has been working well enough.
However, the problem with the split lines in Game 1 is that none of them produced much. The production from any of them isn't where they needed it to be, according to DeBoer.
"He's on a long list there," DeBoer said referring to players not playing their best. "I think if you asked our group, there's a lot of guys on that list."
The other side of it, of course, is how much the Kings and coach Darryl Sutter are trying to keep their eyes on Kovalchuk. While we all want to think that the coaches are attentive to every detail and doing everything they can to keep the looks just as they are drawn up, it's not that way.
Or at least Sutter won't say as much.
"I think it's based on ice time, not so much ours," Sutter said of matching up against Kovalchuk. "You know what, he's out there a lot. As I said, you start chasing a matchup during the game, that's kind of a dinosaur. You start chasing it, pretty soon you're just chasing the puck. You get guys tired or out of position. It's like when you talk about Robby at the start. Rob Scuderi can handle that just as well as Willie Mitchell can. Slava [Voynov] and Drew, they're right-handed guys that can skate and make plays. There's not a big difference."
After admitting he didn't have his best outing in Game 1, the onus is on him and the rest of his team to get him going a bit more in Game 2, a critical game for the Devils. They can't really afford to go to Los Angeles down 2-0 in the series.
Their best chance of avoiding that is getting Kovy going. He's a role player too, you know. He plays the role of star. The Devils would probably like him to be in the spotlight on Saturday.