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Expectations in Jersey exciting for Kovalchuk

Saturday, 03.13.2010 / 12:15 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk doesn't require the Vladimir Zharkov shuttle service to and from Prudential Center anymore. That's good news considering Kovalchuk has had to tell his younger Russian teammate to slow his Porsche down a few times.

The Devils left wing finally got his car earlier this week after having it shipped from Atlanta. He also has his own apartment in Hoboken and as soon his wife, Nicole, gives birth (she's due any day now), he will be all set up just in time for the fun to begin.

Kovalchuk has a different air about him as spring gets set to dawn because instead of trying to scratch and claw with the Thrashers just to make early April games mean something, he is scratching and clawing with the Devils so they can secure home-ice advantage and perhaps the Atlantic Division title.

In a way, for Kovalchuk it's almost, well, like weird.

"The expectation is different, that's for sure," said Kovalchuk, who had his first three-point night as a Devil in Friday's 3-1 win over Pittsburgh. "I don't want to just be in the playoffs. That's not my goal. You want to win and I think everyone in this locker room is on the same page so that's very important. I wish Atlanta is going to make the playoffs and go far because I have all great memories for that team, but I'm part of the Devils now."

He learned what that means earlier this week when coach Jacques Lemaire called a team meeting that turned into a players-only meeting following the Devils' winless swing through Western Canada.

Kovalchuk couldn't believe it. Never before in his career had back-to-back road losses called for a team meeting. But he ate it up. He loved it.

"Again, that's expectations," he said. "The fans and the coaches know we have a lot of great players in this locker room and they know we can play. When you slow down a bit they have to be right on you and tell you that. That's how it's supposed to be. It wasn't exciting, but I was surprised a little bit. I think that's the right thing to do."

It's generally assumed that Kovalchuk was brought to New Jersey as a rental player and his future may not lie in the Garden State. Nobody, least of all Kovalchuk, knows what will happen when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1 but Lou Lamoriello isn't known to strike major deals for superstar free agents.

That doesn't make one lick of difference now anyway. For only the second time in his career, Kovalchuk can look forward to the playoffs.

Even when the Thrashers won the Southeast Division in 2007 to make the playoffs for the first and only time in franchise history, they had to win down the stretch to make sure they got in.

The Devils have a 14-point cushion and are just two points off of the division lead.

"There are big rivalries here," said Kovalchuk, adding Wednesday's game against the Rangers and Friday's against Pittsburgh felt like events instead of regular season games. "Almost like every game is a rivalry. I'm very excited."

Kovalchuk, though, is approaching this stretch drive with the same mindset as he had for the past seven seasons in Atlanta. The only thing different is the feeling he gets before games when he knows something big is happening.

"That's why you love hockey, because of those games, because of those rivalries and because of the fans in the stands jumping," Kovalchuk said. "That's what I want. It's not fun when you play in front of 3,000 or 4,000 people. When it's sold out and you already know that before the game, that's how you want to play."

He rarely felt that way in Atlanta.

"The economy is bad and we all understand that, but the most important thing is we had to win in order to bring the fans into the stands," Kovalchuk said. "When you're a winner everybody likes you. It's tough, but I wish them well and hopefully they're going to do well because they have a lot of good young players. They'll be OK."

The Devils already are, and Kovalchuk is most definitely on board with that.

"This team knows how to win and you really want to be part of it," Kovalchuk said. "I think (a playoff berth this season) will be 13 in a row here. It's a different story than in Atlanta."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl







It means a lot to us, we're very excited. We're looking to continue to build on [our] top core talent of young players. It's just a great opportunity for us to really build high.

— Panthers vice president of hockey operations Travis Viola after Florida won the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery