Ilya Kovalchuk made an impact on the New Jersey Devils' second-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers both when he was in and out of the lineup, so it's only fitting the final goal that sunk the Flyers' comeback hopes and advanced the Devils into the Eastern Conference Finals came off of the stick of the Russian superstar.
Game 5 at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night saw the Devils clinging to a 2-1 lead early in the third period when Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk was sent off for holding at the 4:56 mark. Off the ensuing faceoff, Adam Henrique collected the puck in the left circle and sent it back to the point for a drive by Kovalchuk that whistled past Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. It took all of four seconds for the Devils to strike, and the insurance tally took whatever life was remaining out of the home crowd.
"It was a huge goal," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "I think the excitement when we saw that one go in … that was great and after him taking that game off and getting himself healthy again, he just came back and has been dominant. Once again he got a goal and set up another, and he's played really well."
Kovalchuk, who assisted on Bryce Salvador's goal that tied the game in the first period, led the Devils with seven points in the series despite missing Game 2.
Having lost the opener to the Flyers and facing a 2-0 hole in the second game without their leading scorer during the regular season in the lineup, the Devils pulled together in Kovalchuk's absence and recorded a 4-1 win to even the series.
Kovalchuk returned to the ice as the series shifted to New Jersey and immediately began to take over with his elite play. He scored a goal and set up two others in Game 3, making the precision stretch pass that set up Alexei Ponikarovsky's overtime winner.
"For Kovy, it's a breakthrough season," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "He's scoring important goals in the hockey game. For him, it's probably a monkey off his back a little bit. He hasn't been on a successful team in his career and it took a while, but now he's getting rewarded. He's making a little push and I'm sure it's nice for him."
Kovalchuk, who played in just nine postseason games in his first nine NHL seasons and had never been past the first round prior to this spring, is now translating his regular-season success to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 12 points rank No. 3 in the League and first among players whose teams are still active.
"It all starts with winning," Kovalchuk said. "You can't be happy with yourself even if you score as many goals as you want. You try your best every night, but when the team is winning and everybody is doing well, it helps a lot."