NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk
is making his debut for the New Jersey Devils
tonight at Prudential Center against the similarly revamped Toronto Maple Leafs
. NHL.com is in attendance and will be documenting his night on a period-by-period basis.
Kovalchuk jumps onto the ice for the first time as a Devil 46 seconds into the game and the crowd gives him a nice ovation. He comes over the boards for an on-the-fly change for Zach Parise
and is skating with Dainius Zubrus
and Jamie Langenbrunner
. The Leafs countered with Christian Hanson
, Lee Stempniak
and John Mitchell
as well as defensemen Luke Schenn
and Carl Gunnarsson
He stays on for 1:14 and plays the puck once, and the crowd reacts again. However, he is bumped off the puck by Gunnarsson at the right-wing half wall.
Kovalchuk again comes on for Parise at 3:26 and this time he can be heard whistling for a pass from Zubrus, who never gives it to him. The shift lasts 49 seconds, but Kovalchuk is back less than two minutes later, again for Parise. Nothing doing on this shift either.
He takes his first shot as a Devil at 9:42 of the first period after shielding a Leafs defender and deftly playing the puck to himself in the right circle. Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson
comes up with a nice save to keep Kovalchuk and the Devils off the board.
It's easy to see that Devils coach Jacques Lemaire
's strategy at this point is to use Kovalchuk directly after Parise's shift. He doesn't want Leafs coach Ron Wilson to be able to use the same defensemen to check both guys.
Kovalchuk picks up his first point as a Devil with an assist on Zubrus' goal at 13:20.
From the right-wing half boards he whips a pass to the high slot for Zubrus. Fredrik Sjostrom
gets his stick on it, but the puck is loose near the hash marks and Zubrus makes a strong move to cut through Sjostrom and defenseman Dion Phaneuf
. While falling down, he shoots the puck past Gustavsson for a 1-0 Devils lead.
Kovalchuk gets tripped by Francois Beauchemin
in front of the Leafs' goal at 17:45, setting up the Devils' first power play of the night. He's on the left point with Andy Greene
on his right and Zajac, Parise and Rolston down low. His first shot attempt is blocked by Sjostrom and the rest of the power play is rather quiet.
The period ends with the Devils leading 1-0. Kovalchuk plays seven shifts totaling 6:53. He has an assist, one shot and is a plus-1.
Just like at the start of the game, Kovalchuk jumps over the boards to change for Parise, left wing for left wing, 40 seconds into the period. His shift lasts a little over a minute, but he doesn't do much except skate around. There are no scoring chances.
The Leafs go on their first power play at 2:50, but Kovalchuk doesn't kill penalties. The Leafs make it 1-1 when Tomas Kaberle
's point shot deflects off of Jay Pandolfo
's stick high in the zone and beats a stunned Martin Brodeur
The Devils are back on the power play at 3:52 after Jay Rosehill
goes off for slashing, and Kovalchuk is again on the left point with the same unit as before (Greene, Parise, Zajac, Rolston). He shows off his speed by racing the puck into the zone, but Vladimir Zharkov
gets in Hanson's way as Kovalchuk curls back to the point and is called for tripping at 4:57.
Kovalchuk doesn't take a shift during the 4-on-4 that lasts 55 seconds. His next shift isn't until the 7:38 mark and he sets Anssi Salmela
up for a shot in the left circle that Gustavsson gobbles up and holds on to, stopping the game for a TV timeout.
The same trio stays on the ice coming out of the TV timeout, but this time Kovalchuk is guilty of interfering with Sjostrom at 8:38 for his first minor penalty as a Devil. The Leafs make him pay when Stempniak's seemingly harmless shot from the top of the right circle beats Brodeur through the five-hole at 10:23, giving Toronto a 2-1 lead.
Lemaire is doing some line-juggling now as Langenbrunner is pulled off of Kovalchuk's line to take a shift with Parise and Zajac. Rolston drops to the third line with Dean McAmmond
and Jay Pandolfo
. And, coming out of a TV timeout at 12:33, Kovalchuk and Zubrus are joined by Zharkov, the only other Russian the Devils have.
OK, now Langenbrunner is with Rob Niedermayer
and Andrew Peters
. Can't figure this one out, so we'll stop worrying so much about the other lines and return our focus back to Kovalchuk. After all, it's why we are doing this breakdown in the first place.
Lemaire goes back to his original trio of Kovalchuk, Zubrus and Langenbrunner for a shift that begins at 15:10. It seems as if this line can work if given a chance, but Langenbrunner is guilty of a horrific in-zone turnover and Rickard Wallin
makes him pay with a one-timer from between the hash marks at 16:09 to give the Leafs a 3-1 lead.
It looks like White got in Langenbrunner's way as he tries to carry the puck through the zone, but he gives it away. Kovalchuk is cherry-picking up in the neutral zone as Langenbrunner turns it over, so he has nothing to do with the play, but he gets a minus.
Kovalchuk just misses on a great chance for a one-timer off the rush at 18:45. That's his best scoring chance of the second period. He doesn't get another one as the period ends with the Devils trailing, 3-1.
Kovalchuk plays seven shifts in the second period totaling 7:24 of ice time. He has now played 14 shifts totaling 14:22, and has an assist, shot on goal, two penalties minutes and an even rating.
For the third straight period, Kovalchuk starts on the bench and comes off on the first line change, replacing Parise. He is still skating with Zubrus and Langenbrunner, so Lemaire doesn't appear to be straying from that combination anymore.
On is second shift of the period Kovalchuk sets up a scoring chance in front for both Langenbrunner and Zubrus. He carries the puck toward the back of the goal and sends it toward the front, where both Zubrus and Langenbrunner whack at it. Gustavsson has his pads down and makes two saves in a scrum.
Lemaire goes back to Zharkov as the right wing with Kovalchuk and Zubrus at 7:16. The Devils coach is looking for a spark of any kind with his team down 3-1 roughly halfway through the third period.
White goes off for slashing at 8:38, but Lemaire doesn't use Kovalchuk on the PK despite the fact that the Devils are trailing by two goals. He could try to take a risk by creating some offense while shorthanded, but Kovalchuk averaged five seconds of PK time per game with the Thrashers this season, so he's not a penalty-killer.
Coming out of another break with 9:07 remaining, Kovalchuk is now with McAmmond and Rolston. This is a new one for him. It doesn't bring any spark to the Devils, though, as they still trail by two goals when the shift ends after 67 seconds.
Kovalchuk is now on the ice with Niedermayer and Langenbrunner. He looks a little more determined and is skating a bit harder on this shift than on his previous ones in this period. The Devils are down by two, so there is desperation. He looks like he wants to stay on for a double shift, but he heads to the bench instead.
It's not a bad call because soon after he does the Devils make it 3-2 on a goal from McAmmond with 3:04 remaining. Now it'll be interesting to see how Lemaire deploys Kovalchuk with the Devils needing one goal.
He is not on the ice for the ensuing faceoff after the goal, but Parise is with Zubrus and Zajac. Expect to see Kovalchuk on the next shift.
Well, we're definitely seeing him on the next shift because the Devils are going on the power play with 2:22 remaining. Alexei Ponikarovsky
is in the penalty box after getting called for hooking.
Kovalchuk is on the left point opposite Rolston, who has a powerful shot. Lemaire is going with five forwards, including Niedermayer, Langenbrunner and Zharkov. Kovalchuk races into the left circle and wheels a pass across the zone, but it goes through to the boards.
Zajac and Parise are now on the ice with Kovalchuk, Zubrus and McAmmond, who is on the left point and Kovalchuk has moved to the right. They switch again, and with 49 seconds left Brodeur leaves the ice to make it 6-on-4.
Bang. Goal for the Devils at 19:16. Kovalchuk picks up the secondary assist as he quarterbacks the power play from the top of the zone, just inside the blue line. He passes it back and forth with McAmmond, who finally goes across the zone to Zajac. He wires a one-timer into the top of the goal.
The place is going nuts. And now there is bedlam -- Jay Pandolfo
bangs home a rebound Gustavsson left out to the left side with 18.9 seconds remaining, giving the Devils a 4-3 advantage and now the improbable win.
Kovalchuk finishes the game with a pair of assists, 2 PIM, and an even rating. He plays 21 shifts totaling 21:43 of ice time. He has only the one shot, but he quarterbacks the game-tying goal and watches from the bench as the Devils score the winner.
Kovalchuk is awarded the game's third star.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com