He might not have gotten on the scoresheet in the Devils' 3-0 win on a night in which Atlanta was eliminated from playoff contention and Martin Brodeur earned his 600th career win, but his team pulled two points ahead of defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division race with three games remaining.
That was more than enough for Kovalchuk.
The star left wing, who was traded on Feb. 4 after he and the Thrashers failed to reach a contract extension following protracted negotiations, admitted not to nerves in his first game against his former team but to "a weird feeling."
"You always play for that team but now you play against them, but I'm glad we win and I think Pittsburgh's losing, so a good two points for us," he said.
Then he laughed about being booed in an arena where he brought the fans to their feet for years.
"Ha, ha, yeah," he said. "But half the fans were cheering for me and half the fans were booing. That's nice. It happens all the time, so nothing wrong with that."
Kovalchuk might not have called that weird feeling nerves, but Devils coach Jacques Lemaire suspected that was the case. That's why he chose not to put Kovalchuk into the starting lineup.
"I just felt that if he would be there at the anthem and think about all kinds of stuff it wouldn't be good for him," Lemaire said.
So he waited for a whistle 29 seconds into the game before putting out Kovalchuk's line with Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner. And the boos cascaded. They continued every time Kovalchuk touched the puck.
Brodeur, who owns the NHL records for wins and shutouts, was nonchalant about the significance of his latest milestone.
"It's as nice as the 599," he said. "A win's a win."
But Devils defenseman Paul Martin put the mark in perspective.
"I haven't even played that many games," he said. "That's a lot of wins. He's been doing this for a long time and been good at it for a long time. The way he comes to the rink every day and treats everyone, it's refreshing to have a superstar like that."
And a superstar who has posted back-to-back shutouts on the verge of the playoffs.
"Like [Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello] was saying, I don't remember the last time we had back-to-back shutouts, so it's good," Lemaire said.
Atlanta pressured Brodeur (19 saves), who increased his NHL record for shutouts to 110, in the early going. But after being outshot 6-2 early in the first period, the Devils took control late.
Dean McAmmond opened the scoring with 4:32 left when he beat Atlanta defenseman Mark Popovic down the ice through the slot and converted Dainius Zubrus' pass from the right wing.
"A nice play by Zubie," Lemaire said.
New Jersey made it 2-0 just 51 seconds into the second period. After some sustained pressure in Atlanta's end - the red light went on after the puck hit the crossbar and bounded behind Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg (24 saves) but was waived off by a referee and seconds later Zach Parise scored his 37th. Parise deflected Paul Martin's shot from the right point through Hedberg's pads.
When Travis Zajac scored off the rush after the opening faceoff of the third period just 10 seconds in, the air seemed to go out of the Thrashers. They put only two shots on goal in the final 20 minutes, and when Philadelphia defeated Toronto 2-0 a few minutes after the Thrashers' game had ended, Atlanta was officially eliminated.
"I'm very disappointed to say the least," Thrashers coach John Anderson said of failing to qualify for the postseason. "… We had that one bad streak where we didn't win in nine… Just those little streaks really killed us. We tried to stay way from them but sometimes when you get on a roll, it's hard to stop."
The Thrashers were in eighth place in the Eastern Conference on March 6, but then lost five straight in regulation.
"I thought we were going to make [the playoffs]," Hedberg said. "We had some streaks that did hurt us."
For his part, Kovalchuk took no pleasure in his former team's missing out on the playoffs for the ninth time in their 10 NHL seasons -- the Devils are making their 13th consecutive postseason appearance.
"I actually want them to do real well because I still have a lot of friends on that team and I told them," he said. "I work here for eight years so it's bad. But hopefully during this summer they're going to do something and change things around. They have a lot of great young players. They can be really good if you treat them right and train them right."
|Patrik Elias Interference on goalkeeper against Johan Hedberg|
|Nik Antropov Tripping against Travis Zajac|
|Mark Fraser Holding against Clarke MacArthur|
|Tim Stapleton Holding against Paul Martin|