NEW YORK -- Ilya Kovalchuk made his return to the New Jersey Devils lineup Sunday, but it wasn't a triumphant one.
One game after he was a healthy scratch against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, Kovalchuk was back in the lineup against the New York Rangers on Sunday night. Kovalchuk scored his third goal of the season to bring the Devils to within 2-1 with 5:52 left in the third period, but the Rangers emerged with a 3-1 victory at Madison Square Garden.
Devils coach John MacLean announced before the game that Kovalchuk would return to the lineup, but he would not give a specific reason for making his star winger a healthy scratch. Kovalchuk was also tight-lipped about the reason, saying he needed to "rest," although he did admit there was a team meeting Saturday morning. However, neither Kovalchuk nor MacLean had anything to say about attendance at that meeting.
Dan Girardi midway through the second period led to a power-play goal by Ryan Callahan. It turned out to be the game-winner.
MacLean was happy with the overall performance of Kovalchuk.
"I thought Kovy was fine," MacLean said. "He played hard, skated hard. He had a goal there and had some chances."
In his previous two games before watching from the press box Saturday, Kovalchuk had 0 points and just 4 shots. While MacLean never singled out Kovalchuk following the Devils' 4-1 home loss to the Boston Bruins on Oct. 17, MacLean said there were a lot of "passengers" not pulling their weight in that game. However, it was intimated that Kovalchuk was among the passengers.
Kovalchuk was better Sunday, but said he wasn't playing with a chip on his shoulder.
"I'm hungry every night because that's my job and we're all professionals," Kovalchuk said. "We all have to realize when you step on the ice you have to do your best. You have to find a way to get it done.
"I thought we played a pretty good game. We just can't score the goals right now. We need to be a little more simple and get more traffic in front. It seems like all the goalies play their best games against us."
Kovalchuk said he doesn't think his situation has been a distraction for the team.
"I don't think so. It shouldn't be," Kovalchuk said. "A lot of things happen during the season and everybody is a healthy scratch once in a while. It's not a big deal. We just need to stick together."
The Devils will look for answers on their upcoming five-game road trip, which starts Wednesday in San Jose and winds through Anaheim, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Chicago. It could be what the Devils need to come together and improve on their 2-6-1 record.
"It's totally a team effort. I thought we played a pretty good game and we have to build on that," Kovalchuk said. "We have a long road trip and we're going to spend a lot of time together. That's good for us. That's what we need right now -- to know each other better and become closer."
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