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Kovalchuk stars in his return to lineup

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Kovalchuk stars in his return to lineup
After sitting out Game 2 with a lower-body injury, Ilya Kovalchuk returned to the Devils' lineup with a vengeance on Thursday.

NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk says you sometimes need to take one step back in order to take two steps forward.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk
Left Wing - NJD
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 9
SOG: 27 | +/-: -3
Consider his dramatic effort in Game 3 of New Jersey's Eastern Conference semifinal victory over the Philadelphia Flyers as one major leap in what is becoming one memorable playoff run.

After sitting out Game 2 with a lower-body injury, Kovalchuk returned to the Devils' lineup with a vengeance on Thursday before 17,625 at Prudential Center, scoring a goal and setting up two others to lead New Jersey to a 4-3 overtime victory.

"I just wanted to be myself," Kovalchuk said. "I knew I felt good because I skate this morning and had no problems. I just wanted to fill into the lineup and do the right thing.

"I feel a lot better than almost the whole first series [against the Florida Panthers] and then the first game of second series. I just want to say thanks to the trainers and doctors, and hopefully get even better every day."

There was a sense from the opening faceoff, when Kovalchuk took the ice with linemates Travis Zajac and Alexei Ponikarovsky, this was going to be a game to remember.

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It was Kovalchuk's sensational look to find Ponikarovsky late in the first overtime that led to the game-winner and sent the hometown faithful into a frenzy while giving the Devils a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

After collecting Kovalchuk's pass during an ill-advised Flyers line change, Ponikarovsky skated in on goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and knocked in his own rebound from low in the right circle at 17:21 for the win.

"It was a world-class play … not many guys have the poise to hold the puck there and recognize a line change on the other team and then spring somebody," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "There's only a handful of guys in the League that make that play, and we're fortunate enough to have one of them on our team."

Ponikarovsky, who connected for his first playoff goal as a Devil, said he expected the pass because it was Kovalchuk with the puck on his stick.

"I knew it right away because I just jumped from the bench and saw their players going toward their bench for the change because they were tired," Ponikarovsky said. "I saw Kovy turning in, and I knew right away I have a huge hole because they were all going to bench. It was a great play by Kovy because he saw me right away and make the great pass for me.

"I just had to be there … at the right time and right place."

What did Kovalchuk see on the play?

"You got to see the ice, and it was a nice play by Poni to find the open spot and get the rebound," Kovalchuk said. "I think they were really tired and got the puck in our zone. I was able to intercept and saw all five guys changing. I saw Poni in the right spot, and he had a two-on-one and made great play there."

Kovalchuk earned 22:09 of ice time on 31 shifts in his return to the lineup and finished with a plus-2 rating.

"I didn't want to come back and play because I just want to be there … I wanted us to play the way we played in Game 2, and we did that," Kovalchuk said.

At this point, nothing that Kovalchuk does surprises his coach.

"I think when you're around him every day, you realize what he's capable of," DeBoer said. "He was very motivated to get back in and not disrupt the lineup in what the guys accomplished in Game 2. I knew he would have a positive effect in the game."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

Quote of the Day

I downplayed the first one because I thought it's just a hockey game. We just want to win the game; it's against our rival and we want the two points. I downplayed it, but now having gone through the first one I look back and say, 'Geez, that was really cool.' I think as I've grown a bit older I've got a lot more appreciation for what we're allowed to do every day.

— Capitals forward Brooks Laich on the 2015 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic, the second one of his career after 2011 in Pittsburgh