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Devils need to be more than just Kovalchuk

by Dave Lozo
When the New Jersey Devils acquired Ilya Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers, he immediately became the focal point -- the left wing of attention, if you will -- on a team that was in desperate need for an offensive shot in the arm.

The Devils' fortunes seemingly became inexorably linked to Kovalchuk's performance. Sure, they have 40-goal scorer Zach Parise, but he never had his game dissected the way Kovalchuk has since arriving in New Jersey on Feb. 4.

Kovalchuk was supposed to be the catalyst, the savior that allowed the Devils to compete with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the battle for Eastern Conference supremacy.

But during a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers on Wednesday, the Devils showed why they can be a dangerous team come playoff time -- they're not a one-man show.

Six players scored goals. None were by Kovalchuk.

Ten players had points. None were by Kovalchuk.

Twenty-seven shots on goal -- just one by Kovalchuk.

That's not to say he's been a non-entity with the Devils. He has 8 points in 10 games and 3 goals in his last six contests. And when he's not scoring, he's clearly receiving the attention of defenses and freeing up opportunities for others.

If the Devils consistently can produce offense from a few different sources the way they did Wednesday and not lean so heavily on Kovalchuk, it could be the formula for a deep playoff run.

"That's the recipe for a good team. You can't rely on one guy night-in and night-out," said Devils defenseman Mike Mottau, who had 2 assists Wednesday. "You know he's a world-class talent, but the supporting cast around him has to be as good each night. I think once we figure that out, line combinations and just the way we have to play to be successful, and we'll be a tough team to beat."

Contributions from the defense are crucial. You'd be hard-pressed to find a team with fewer offensive defensemen than the Devils, as evidenced by Andy Greene's team-leading 5 goals from the blueliners.

But Wednesday, the Devils made a conscious effort to get pucks to the net from out high, and it paid off in the form of a goal from Bryce Salvador -- his fourth of the season -- and a total of 5 points from a group that hasn't been contributing a whole lot of offense this season.

"We've been trying to focus on getting pucks to the net," Mottau said. "Not so much to score, but to cause some confusion down low, just getting it through into traffic."

But the real benefit of acquiring Kovalchuk has been how much deeper he's made the Devils. And that depth was on display Wednesday when the Devils received a pair of goals from the third line of Brian Rolston, Rob Niedermayer and David Clarkson.

When three lines are contributing and dangerous, it's tough to defend.

"That's the only way you're going to go far in the playoffs, is if you have a couple lines scoring," said Parise, who had a goal and an assist against the Rangers. "Today we had that, and hopefully we can keep that going. But that's going to be really important from now on."

It's easy to put Kovalchuk under the microscope, but when the playoffs start, it's all about rolling three lines and not letting the defense focus on one or two scorers. The Stanley Cup Playoff graveyard is filled with teams that tried to get by on one dynamic line -- just ask the Ottawa Senators about Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.

The Devils boast one of the best top-nine forward groups in the League. Depending on what coach Jacques Lemaire wants to throw out there on any given night, there's no easy way to defend the combinations of Kovalchuk-Jamie Langenbrunner-Patrik Elias, Parise-Travis Zajac-Dainius Zubrus, and Clarkson-Rolston-Niedermayer.

It's not just about Kovalchuk. It's about what the Devils always have been about -- playing as a team.

"I think our top three lines are the best in the League," said Zajac, who is third on the Devils with 21 goals. "I'd put us up against anyone."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter at: @DLozoNHL
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