Devils take Game 3 in OT 0
The New Jersey Devils celebrate after defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Newark, New Jersey. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/AFP)
Ilya Kovalchuk was a self-admitted "nervous wreck."
It was Game 2 of this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal between his New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night, and the injured sniper was at home with his family and a couple friends watching the game on television.
"I had just put my daughter to bed and I came back to see Adam Larsson had tied the game 1-1 for us," Kovalchuk recalled.
At that point, Kovalchuk, the butterflies churning in his gut, could not watch anymore.
So, he walked out of the room "for good luck."
About a half hour later, he received the news: the Devils had posted a 4-1 victory to tie the series 1-1.
Kovalchuk hated not being in the City of Brotherly Shove playing with his teammates. He'd never won a playoff series in his career prior to the Devils' elimination of the Florida Panthers in the first round last week.
"But you have to do what's best for the team," he admitted.
Kovalchuk had been fighting through an ailing lower body injury, believed to be a bad back. It was hindering his play. He didn't register a single shot on goal in Game 1, a 4-3 overtime victory for the Flyers.
As a result, the decision was made that he should rest.
Looking refreshed and refocussed, Kovalchuk returned to this series with a vengeance Thursday night, registering three points in the Devils' 4-3 overtime victory in Game 3 at the Prudential Center.
In Game 2, the Devils showed they can win without him.
In Game 3, he showed they are a better team with him.
Because Kovalchuk is a difference maker. That was never more evident than on Thursday's winning goal, which came off the stick of Alexei Ponikarovsky 17:21 into overtime.
Spotting that the fatigued Flyers were in the midst of a line change, Kovalchuk sprung Ponikarovsky with a long pass down the right wing. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov stopped Ponikarovsky's first shot. No such luck on the second.
"It was just so good to be back in there," Kovalchuk said. "With two days off, I felt really good and fresh.
"I have to thank the doctors and trainers for working with me and getting me back in there."
If there were any lingering questions about Kovalchuk's health early on, he muzzled them all in the first period after the Flyers jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Brayden Schenn goal.
With Philly's Braydon Coburn in the penalty box for tripping, Kovalchuk helped set up the ageless Patrik Elias for the equalizer at 12:33 of the opening frame. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov looked as if he might have made the stop, but replays did not clearly show if the puck was deflected.
Either way, Bryzgalov had no chance just moments later when the Flyers defence suddenly went missing, allowing Kovalchuk to gobble up open ice before drilling in the go-ahead goal.
The Elias-Kovalchuk goals were scored 20 seconds apart, setting a new Devils team mark for fastest two scores in a playoff contest. The previous mark of 26 seconds was set by Petr Sykora and Bobby Holik in Philadelphia, May 14, 2000.
Back and forth the game went until overtime was required.
And there was Kovalchuk, the man who couldn't watch the end of Game 2 because of frayed nerves, setting up the winner in Game 3. The Devils now lead the series 2-1 with Game 4 looming Sunday at the Prudential Center.
"It's a huge win for us," Kovalchuk said. "I'm so glad I was able to contribute and be part of it."
Much to the chagrin of the Flyers.