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Kovalchuk hopes for warm reception

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Kovalchuk returns to Atlanta on Tuesday.
Ilya Kovalchuk says hockey’s a business and hopes to be warmly received by fans in Atlanta when the Devils visit the Thrashers on Tuesday.

The Devils acquired Kovalchuk in a five-player deal on Feb. 4, after the highly-coveted left wing failed to come to terms on a contract extension with the Thrashers.

“We’ll see,” Kovalchuk said after Monday's practice. “I had a great relationship with the fans, and with every single person in that organization. I hope nobody takes it personally.”

Kovalchuk, 26, has lived up to his billing as a scoring threat. He has nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in 23 games as a Devil, including seven multi-point outings. He notched his 40th goal versus Chicago on Friday, becoming the first player since 1993-94 to reach that plateau in six straight seasons.

The trade has paid off for both sides. Niclas Bergfors and Johnny Oduya have produced as Thrashers, combining for nine goals and 17 assists since the trade. One of the League’s top rookies, Bergfors has eight goals, nine assists in 24 games.

“It was a good move for both sides,” Kovalchuk said. “They got two great players, and one prospect [Patrice Cormier]. I got a chance to try something different and play for a really good team.”

For now, Kovalchuk has no idea what to expect when when the teams hit the ice for pre-game warmups at Philips Arena.

“Not yet,” he said. “Maybe [I’ll know] when I step onto a different side of the ice. For sure, it will be something special because I spent my first eight years there. I hold a lot of good things about that organization and what they did for me. It’s a business and almost every player in the NHL switches teams. I just have to go through that.”

Jacques Lemaire didn't buy into the suggestion that the Thrashers would get an emotional boost from facing their former captain. Tuesday night, Lemaire says, will come down to how Kovalchuk handles being back.

"The team just plays," Lemaire said. "It's only the individual that sometimes will try to be more ready; try to have a good game against his ex-team. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's worse – they don't play well."

The Devils can clinch home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs with a win or an overtime loss, or with a loss of any kind by fifth-seeded Ottawa. The Senators visit Florida on Tuesday.

Kovalchuk reached the postseason only once in seven-plus campaigns with the Thrashers, and now could deal their playoff hopes a major blow. Atlanta currently sits three points behind Philadelphia for the final spot in the East with three games remaining. They suffered a first-round sweep to the Rangers in 2006-07.

"He talked about this morning – he's excited," Martin Brodeur said. "We could put his ex-team out of the playoffs, and I'm sure he went somewhere else because he didn't think he could make the playoffs in Atlanta. I'm sure that's what the whole thing was: a chance to win."

Brodeur allowed three goals on six shots before being pulled in the Devils' last visit to Atlanta on Dec. 19. Jersey's Team rallied from a 3-1 first-period deficit with four straight goals to capture a 5-4 win.

"It's always a tough place to play for us, regardless," said Brodeur. "It's always an adventure to play in Atlanta."

Anssi Salmela, the Devils’ other piece of the Kovalchuk deal, also returns to Atlanta. The Finnish defenseman has nine appearances since the trade, and last played on March 13 at Long Island.

“We thought about it,” Lemaire said of getting Salmela into Tuesday’s lineup. “We’re not sure. We haven’t made the decision yet on who’s going to play, but we’ve been talking about it.”

Lemaire had Salmela skating with Kovalchuk on a line centered by Patrik Elias on Monday, but didn't seem to be considering trying the blueliner up front.

"Not [Tuesday]," said the coach. "He would have to show me more."

• Brodeur believes home ice advantage in the first round is just what a team needs to start the postseason.

"That's a big thing," said Brodeur. "It's important that, regardless of positioning, at least when you start your first series, you'd rather start it at home."

He continued: "That's something that's important, I feel. Even though it hasn't paid off in the last two seasons, I think it's something that's nice to have early in the playoffs to get some momentum, get off from that series and makes you not as beat up because you don't have to travel."

• D Paul Martin is expected to play Tuesday after he was rested for Saturday’s 4-0 win in Carolina. He was excused from Monday's practice for personal reasons.

The Devils dominated the Hurricanes to snap a three-game winless skid, and will try to build off that with just four games remaining. New Jersey (45-26-7) is tied with Pittsburgh atop the Atlantic Division, but it has been more than three months since their last winning streak of more than two games. They won five in a row from Dec. 12-21.

"We always feel that, 'Hey this is the start, this is the start, this is the start'," Lemaire said. "So until we don't play well, let's say, it's a start."

• D Mark Fraser got into the lineup at Carolina, and Lemaire was pleased with the result. Efforts from youngsters like Fraser will make it easier for Lemaire to rest his veterans as the postseason approaches.

The rookie rearguard led all Devils with nine hits in the game.

"Fraser really responded well," Lemaire said. "And you know what? I want to play him again just for what he did there, and to see if he can keep going like this."

• RW Dainius Zubrus, the Devils’ resident techie, picked up his brand-new Apple iPad before Monday’s practice. His new toy didn’t make the trip to Atlanta, though. “I left it with my kids. I put all the games that I have on my [iPhone], I just threw them on there quickly and I was out the door.” Zubrus expects to have has official review ready within the next two weeks.

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