The New Jersey Devils' unexpected bid to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs is being led by the man who got all the headlines during the free-agent signing period last summer.
While he struggled mightily along with the rest of the team during its 10-29-2 first half, Ilya Kovalchuk has spent the past two months showing Devils fans and the rest of the NHL why he commanded a 15-year, $100-million contract by carrying the team on his back during crunch moments in games.
A perfect example came last Wednesday when the Devils hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning. The two sides traded second-period goals and the game was 1-1 entering the third period. Lightning defenseman Matt Smaby attempted to clear a puck out of his own end but instead put it on the stick of Devils center Travis Zajac. His cross-ice pass was slightly behind a cutting Kovalchuk, but he was able to rear back and, while beginning to fall forward, get off a one-timer that soared into the left corner of the net.
"Travis had a good forecheck and got the puck from their defenseman and made a great play," said Kovalchuk, whose finish was its own thing of beauty.
Since the Devils' current 20-2-2 run began with a 6-3 win over those same Lightning on Jan. 9, Kovalchuk has been at his best on almost a nightly basis. He recently put together a career-best 12-game points streak and enjoyed another 12-game stretch in which he scored six game-winning goals. That tied him with Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead with nine game-winners this season.
"He's got a touch, and that's why he's getting so much money," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said with a grin after Kovalchuk's decisive goal against the Lightning.
Two nights after that, Kovalchuk was at it again. In another must-win game -- almost every one the Devils play at this point qualifies, if they want to complete what would be a miracle rally to the postseason -- he connected on the power play in the waning seconds of overtime to defeat the Penguins.
And in the Devils' most recent game Sunday on Long Island, all Kovalchuk did was set up the game's opening goal on the power play, score a go-ahead goal in the third period and convert an important shootout goal that gave teammate Brian Rolston the chance to score the winner in the sixth round against the Islanders.
"We all knew -- we saw a lot of flashes last season of what he's able to do," goalie Martin Brodeur said of Kovalchuk, whose tough first half still has him on pace to score the fewest goals since his rookie season. "It was hard on the team, and I think the team is playing better so for him it is easier to go through games and not being looked at all the time.
"With the talent that he has -- and not just the talent, but the effort that he brings every night -- it is not like he's floating out there. He's playing a hard 27 minutes. He's going at it pretty hard and the puck is finding him right now."