When the New Jersey Devils acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky from the Carolina Hurricanes on January 20 they knew they were getting a big guy (6’4″, 225 lbs), and also adding more depth to solidify their four lines. What I’m sure not even GM Lou Lamoriello knew was how the 32-year-old would respond in the postseason, because coming into this run the Devils have been on he only had totaled 10 points (3g-8a) in 38 career playoff games.
Ponikarovsky hasn’t exactly lit it up in the 2012 playoffs, but when he has contributed on the scoresheet the majority of it has been when it matters most: after assisting on the game-winning goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals he now has one goal, two assists in overtime in these playoffs. His winning goal late in OT of Game 3 changed the momentum in the series with the Philadelphia Flyers and propelled his Devils into round three. He has no goals and three assists in regulation; but his other assist in extra time came on Adam Henrique’s first series-clinching goal, in double overtime of Game 7 in Florida against the Panthers; a series and game that if they don’t win, they aren’t even here. “He’s a big body; those guys make a huge difference in these playoff games,” said his fellow Eastern European Ilya Kovalchuk.
Poni, as his teammates call him, broke down the winning play that sent the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals to play against the team he played for last season — the Los Angeles Kings. “I couldn’t really see it, I just reacted to Adam because we were all hacking and whacking at the puck in the crease. I couldn’t see the puck,” he said shaking his head. “There were so many bodies there, you couldn’t really see anything. Adam was right behind the goalie, to stuff the puck in. I saw it on the replay, it just kind of squeezed in his direction and he just put it in.” He smiled, caught his breath and added, “He just jumped right away and I knew it was a goal. We just started running right over to him in the corner, and just started screaming and jumping.”
As he stated to me during the season, and again after eliminating the New York Rangers, he was very happy when the Devils traded for him and isn’t necessarily worried about his own stats, just the team’s. “This is what I was dreaming about (when he was acquired by New Jersey), all the time and these opportunities don’t come that often (during your career),” said Ponikarovsky. “With the group we have here, everybody’s just working hard and it doesn’t matter who’s scoring the goals. Everybody is playing hard, doing the little things right and that’s why I think we are having a lot of success. Everybody’s contributing on the same level, every night, shift after shift. It doesn’t matter what the score is, we just keep going.”
Despite the fact that Ponikarovsky has only been in New Jersey for a little over four months, he knows and sees how tight this group is and has become with each passing game and day. “Nobody is selfish or whatever here, it’s just one of those things that everybody is taking pride in what they are doing,” he explained. “Everybody is happy for each other when we score the goals, that’s what I think team is all about.”
This Devils team has played with fire (no pun intended, well maybe a little) blowing two and three-goal leads almost regularly throughout the season and during the playoffs, but their confidence has never wavered, and as Ponikarovsky says, the coaching staff is a big reason why. Even after blowing leads in Game 5 and Game 6 against the Rangers, the message was the same, “They always tell us just get back to the basics of our game plan. It was a 2-2 score (going into overtime), it’s the same as 0-0. So we knew what we have to do, like they tell us — get pucks deep, hold on to it when we have it, make some plays, try to get it to the net and look for some rebounds, screen the goalie. Same old stuff, we knew what to do, but it helps to have it reinforced a lot too. It’s worked for us so far.”
Ponikarovsky knows some of the Kings players from his time during the 2010-11 season, but as he told me a lot has changed since he left there. “They’ve played some pretty good hockey from what I’ve seen and they’ve beaten some really good teams in the West. I’m sure they are playing a little bit different style then when I was there because they have a new coach. We’ll probably adjust (our game) a little bit, but what has worked for us all the time is our work ethic and habits.”
After 11 NHL seasons he is very happy to make it to the Finals for the first time and it was evident by how much bigger the Kiev-native’s smile got when asked about it. “I’m really happy — it’s everybody’s dream to get to the Stanley Cup Finals (and win it). It’s a journey, it’s another step, and we still have to play another series; get four more wins.”
Dan Rice can be reached via Twitter: @DRdiablo321 or via email: email@example.com