Ilya Kovalchuk has been the subject of harsh, oftentimes downright unfair, criticism during his time in New Jersey. Thus far, the Russian sniper has brushed off the sometimes venomous assessment of his play by an impatient fan base. He’s let his play on the ice do the talking for him. Never has that been more true than the last four games.
Since the All-Star break, it seems Kovalchuk has done everything except strap on the pads and get between the pipes, carrying the club to four straight wins over some impressive opponents, including division rivals Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the hated Rangers. He’s scored goals, racked up assists, played stellar defense, and even dropped the gloves in defense of teammate Zach Parise, whose evaluation of Kovalchuk’s play is about as accurate as it gets:
“He’s been a beast. He’s doing it all, scoring shorthanded, power play, fighting….you see him outworking two guys shorthanded, that rubs off on guys on the bench.”
The NHL recognized Kovalchuk’s play by naming him the Second Star for the week ending February 5, behind the Edmonton Oilers’ Sam Gagner, who recorded a record-tying eight points on Thursday vs. the Chicago Blackhawks.
Kovalchuk earned the honor by notching three consecutive three-point games, including a goal (the 750th point of his career) and two assists in Sunday’s 5-2 win over Pittsburgh. Additionally, he recorded the deciding score in the Devils’ 4-3 shootout victory over the Rangers last Tuesday and registered a Gordie Howe Hat Trick (goal, assist, fight) vs. the Flyers on Saturday.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ilya Kovalchuk may not necessarily be his play on the ice, however. He’s becoming a true team leader, and remaining humble even though he’s clearly playing at a higher level than anyone else right now.
“It’s a total team effort,” Kovalchuk said after the win over the Penguins. When asked about his three straight three point games, he credited his teammates, including Zach Parise. “We’ve just consistently do the right things as a line, create a lot of chances. Everybody knows Zach is an elite player, it’s so easy to play with good players like him and Patty (Patrik Elias).”
Ilya Kovalchuk came to New Jersey just over two calendar years ago in a controversial trade. An even more controversial contract saga followed, placing an “X” squarely on his back. He’s never shrunk from the stigma of the huge contract, or the high expectations his detractors have heaped on his broad shoulders. Right now, he’s playing with a fire and determination that’s silencing those critics.