The Devils are 0-3-4 and have scored 12 goals since Kovalchuk went down with a right shoulder injury March 23. They have fallen into ninth place in the Eastern Conference heading into their NBC Sports Network Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Boston Bruins at Prudential Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2).
"We're not going to put his safety in jeopardy," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said Tuesday, "but we're not going to wait until he's 100 percent to get him back. That's not realistic."
Kovalchuk practiced Tuesday for the first time since he was put on injured reserve March 24.
He avoided contact and skated as an extra forward and as an extra defenseman at times. He was able to take light wrist shots early in practice, move the puck with some hard passes, and got some time rotating in with the penalty killers.
"It was a good day," Kovalchuk said.
Especially considering two days ago he wasn't able to shoot the puck.
Kovalchuk said the next step is to start taking slap shots and one-timers. He hasn't tried either.
"You have to just keep yourself in shape and do what the trainers and the doctors tell you to," he said. "We've got a great group of guys here who are very professional and I trust them 100 percent. I just try to work hard. We all know the situation we are in and I want to be back as soon as possible."
DeBoer said the focus now is to see how Kovalchuk responds to a full practice, even though he didn't take any contact and didn't attempt any hard shots.
"I'd take him at less than 100 percent, but he's got work to do before he's an option," DeBoer said.
Kovalchuk wouldn't go into detail about what he did to his shoulder (the Devils said it was a right shoulder injury and he'd be out two to four weeks), but he admitted he was in serious pain. He hesitated when he was asked if he initially thought he would be in jeopardy of missing the remainder of the season.
"You never know when you're in that kind of pain, but I didn't want to stay out there [on the ice] too long because I knew my daughter was watching," Kovalchuk said. "She always asks me if somebody cross checked me or something, 'Does it hurt you?' Then she feels bad. I had to get out of there and into the locker room.
"It's never good when you go to the hospital after the game. You know something is wrong."
The Devils, though, won't wait for it to be 100 percent right. If they do, their season might be over.
"[It's] definitely going to take a few more days," Kovalchuk said.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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