During his short time with the New Jersey Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk was always polarizing. Perhaps that’s why the team’s fans care so much about his departure and how it happened. In his second game in Prudential Center since returning to the NHL after his retirement/leaving to play in the KHL, Kovalchuk netted the game-winning goal in the shootout for the Montreal Canadiens, completing a comeback that saw them trailing 0-3 with seven minutes left in the second period.
“The most important thing is that we won. We battled back from being down 3-0 and that’s a really good sign. We showed a lot of character and we needed this game,” Kovalchuk told the media after the game. “It was a do or die game for us and in the second and third periods, we showed up and scored big goals. Our goalie was unbelievable in the shootout, we’ll take those two points.”
Let’s Get Weird!
To make it crazier, it happened ten years to the date (Feb. 4, 2010) that Kovalchuk was acquired by the Devils in a blockbuster eight-piece trade from the Atlanta Thrashers, remember them? Ten years ago and a day later, no. 17 would make his Devils debut. Last season when he made his initial return to the Rock with the Los Angeles Kings the 36-year-old scored a late, meaningless goal in a Kings 5-1 triumph. As much of an awkward fit that he was in Hollywood (43 points in 81 games), Kovalchuk has been a fantastic fit in Montreal (10 points in 13 games).
In both games the Devils’ faithful were merciless. Every single time he touched the puck he was loudly booed. Which in today’s day and age is remarkable that, that many people were actually watching the game and not looking at their phones. Respect. This is nothing new for players who have left the Devils over the years though, see: Parise, Zach, Holik, Bobby, Gomez, Scott. But Kovalchuk wasn’t hurt or angry about the loud noises those nights though. He took the high road and kept it honest.
“It’s always fun. I know they love me here,” he replied when asked about scoring the winning goal to silence the haters. He even put his finger to his mouth to shush them after his winning tally. “I had three and a half great seasons here. We went to the Stanley Cup Final, and I have only great memories with this team.”
A few questions later he was asked again about the booing. He didn’t make a face. He didn’t roll his eyes. All he had to say was, “It’s okay. It’s part of the game.” Then Kovalchuk added, “It was actually less than last year, but it’s all fun. If they are booing or cheering you, that means you did something special.”
‘Fans don’t boo nobodies,’ MLB Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson once said; and it was said again years later by NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller. And it’s true. Fans always have a reason behind booing, whether it’s to get in a goalie’s headspace or to let a former player know that they miss them.
Kovy, the Habs Saviour
In 222 games with New Jersey from 2010-13, the Russian sniper finished with 201 points (89g-112a) and another 25 points (10g-15a) in 28 playoff games. Kovalchuk played with the Devils in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, but while the billionaires were fighting with the millionaires he went home to Mother Russia. If he never went home, does he retire abruptly from the NHL, voiding his mega-deal that would have kept New Jersey in salary cap hell? We’ll likely never know, but if Kovalchuk stays with the Devils, stays in the NHL, there’s likely no Taylor Hall trade, no Nico Hischier, and no Jack Hughes wearing red and black.
Now seemingly reenergized with Montreal, he is trying his best to bring the Habs back to the postseason. “The coach has given me the role that I always play and I’m just trying to do my best,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s great chemistry between all of the guys here. We have a lot of young guys with a lot of talent and a great leadership group. I like everything here.”
He admitted to The Hockey Writers that he didn’t know many players on the Canadiens before signing with them less than a month after the Kings released him. But the two people that he did know was more than enough. “I knew Tomas (Tatar), and I knew (Carey) Price from some All-Star Games. Tomas told me it’s a great group of guys so I didn’t think twice about signing here.”
On the Rise
Currently, Montreal is not in a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference. But if they can string a few wins together in a row they could sneak in, and with the firepower that they have, they could be a hard out. We’ve seen teams sneak into the playoffs and make some noise before – think Columbus last season, the Kings in 2012.
“We just have to keep working hard. This game (tonight) showed a lot about our team, about our character. We never give up. Coach told us it was a do or die game tonight, and we came back after not skating for the past two days with so many of us battling the flu,” Kovalchuk said when asked if this team can go on a run. “Our legs weren’t good early, but we sweated it out. We played really well in the second half of the game.”
With so many Habs players battling the flu, to be able to battle back from being down three goals on the road was pretty remarkable. “It happens, we just never gave up. All of the guys in here, we are trying to do something special and I think this comeback will give us some confidence for our upcoming home games,” said Kovalchuk. “We have to play way better at home. We have to win those.”
He also added with a smirk that there were no handshakes after the game, especially with the players who have been sick recently.
“It’s great, they have given me a warm welcome,” he added, “and I’m just trying to do my best to help this team win games.” As mentioned earlier, Montreal and Kovalchuk seem like a great match thus far. He feels welcomed there and that’s a good thing for his confidence so he can just go out and play hockey while trying to resurrect his NHL career.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.