NEWARK, N.J. --
At a time when the New Jersey Devils
were reeling and just seeking an identity, longtime teammates Ilya Kovalchuk
and Johan Hedberg
stepped to the forefront to help provide some hope after a tumultuous start to the season.
Of course, a coaching change played a big part in that equation as well. Remember when the Devils were the League's cellar dwellers at 9-22-2?
That seems like ancient history right about now.
New Jersey has averaged 2.7 goals per game since Jacques Lemaire
took the reins two days before Christmas and have a 14-8-2 overall mark to show for it. They've been without cornerstone player Zach Parise
since November following knee surgery and future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur
has been in and out of the lineup, missing the last 4 games after suffering a inoperable right knee sprain Feb. 6 in Montreal.
Enter Kovalchuk and Hedberg, who spent four seasons together in Atlanta before coming to New Jersey.
"When the coach trusts you 100 percent and he puts you in all situations, that's when you feel you're on the top of your game," Kovalchuk told NHL.com. "That was the biggest difference. Lately, we play better as a team and everybody has taken one step up."
"They signed me to be myself and I don't think they want me to be the Selke Trophy winner or something like that." -- Ilya Kovalchuk
Kovalchuk is hoping that continues Wednesday when the Devils play host to the Carolina Hurricanes
at Prudential Center.
He has struck for 21 points in the 24 games that Lemaire has coached after producing just 18 in the previous 32 under former bench boss John MacLean
. He's scored nine goals during the Devils' recent 13-1-2 run that at least has fans thinking about the postseason.
"Kovy has been great the last month and a half," Hedberg told NHL.com. "He's played a more solid game than I've ever seen him play, and you can't ask for much more than that."
Additionally, Kovalchuk has an eight-game point streak (6 goals, 10 points) and has seven goals and six assists over the last 10 games.
"I just try to be myself," Kovalchuk admitted. "They signed me to be myself and I don't think they want me to be the Selke Trophy winner or something like that."
While Kovalchuk's numbers are par for the course for a player who entered the season with 338 goals and 642 points in 621 career games, Hedberg has certainly become a pleasant surprise.
But even if Hedberg's play may be surprising to those in New Jersey, it isn't to those who know him well.
"He was waiting for the chance and he got it ... he's one of the hardest working guys on the ice every day," Kovalchuk said. "I played with him for a long time already and he's a great man. He's honest and he'll give 110 percent every night. I see him in the gym every day and he can run. He loves the treadmill stuff and always gets the best results on those tests before the season. We believe in him when he's back there."
Back in April 2008, NHL.com asked then-strength and conditioning coach of the Thrashers, Ray Bear, to offer his assessment of the best-conditioned athletes on the team.
His response might surprise you.
"Kovalchuk was a strong all-around player, as was Marian Hossa
, and they have proven that on the ice," Bear said. "But if I had to pick one guy, I'd say Hedberg. Not because he's the strongest guy I've ever seen, but a player that's put together well from top to bottom. His work ethic is just phenomenal and his teammates would tell you the same thing. He's a workhorse in the gym and is a guy that just sticks out to me in excelling in what he does."
Keep in mind that after nine seasons with the Thrashers, Bear selected a civilian position at Fort Bragg in North Carolina that the Army created where he trains many of the U.S. military's elite soldiers. He's one of only nine people in the country working in such a capacity with the military so consider him quite the authority on conditioning.
When told of the comment, Hedberg smiled.
"I think maybe more with age, I need that stamina and I need to have that good base to stand on to play through a season," he said. "The better conditioned I am, the better position it puts me in staying healthy."
Hedberg, 37, has won four straight games in relief of Brodeur, who was placed on injured reserve retroactive to Feb. 6. The "Moose" has stopped 106 of 112 shots and has allowed just 6 goals in those 4 games. He's certainly feeling well these days. For the season, Hedberg is 10-10-3 with a 2.63 GAA and .905 save percentage.
"I feel good ... some days I feel probably 47," Hedberg said with a laugh. "But most of the days, I feel great and I think it's all about preparation, your approach to the rink, and that's something I enjoy. I come to the rink and have fun, and look forward to a good workout in practice to stay on top of things."
Lemaire feels having a greater share of the workload with Brodeur sidelined is what has enabled Hedberg to elevate his game.
"Now he feels responsibilities," Lemaire said. "I think it's a big part of the difference. He's a competitor and he sees the challenge and he steps up. I've seen him at times before I got here, playing worse than this, and now that we need him, he stands up and plays well. That's exactly what you need. If he was where he was before, when he was struggling, we would have no chance."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale