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Kovy savors 4-3 comeback win in debut with Devils

by Dan Rosen
NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk couldn't come up with the words to sum up his whirlwind last few days.

"It's not easy," the newest New Jersey Devil said.

Now it doesn't really matter either.

The history books will detail Kovalchuk's final days in Atlanta, how he couldn't reach an agreement on a new contract and eventually was traded from the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2001. They will document his first few hours as a Devil, from the time GM Lou Lamoriello picked him up in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night to the time he took his first shift 46 seconds into Friday night's game.

Kovalchuk, though, cares only about what matters most.

How did his first full day as a Devil end? Well, that he'll never forget.

New Jersey came back to beat Toronto 4-3, scoring three goals in the final 3:04 --  including two in the final minute. Kovalchuk, who finished the night with a pair of assists in nearly 22 minutes of ice time, was heavily involved in the game-tying goal.

With the Devils on a power play that turned into a 6-on-4 advantage when Martin Brodeur left the ice for the extra attacker, Kovalchuk got the puck back from Dean McAmmond at the top of the zone, just inside the blue line. He saw Toronto's Rickard Wallin cheating up on him, so he quickly tapped the puck back to McAmmond, who rifled it across the zone to Travis Zajac for a one-time blast from the left circle that beat Jonas Gustavsson.

Twenty-five seconds later, Jay Pandolfo banged home a juicy rebound and the Devils were 19 seconds away from celebrating what has to be their most improbable win in quite some time.

"With the Thrashers we got quite a few (comebacks) this year, but it's great to play with that kind of crowd," Kovalchuk said in reference to the 15,204 inside Prudential Center. "They supported us all game long. Nobody left the building, and it kept going for us."

As Kovalchuk pointed out, Zajac scored the tying goal from the same spot on the ice where he usually played when Atlanta was on the power play. However, he talked with Devils coach Jacques Lemaire before the game and was told he was going to be on the left point.

"Oh yeah, I'm very comfortable (on the point)," Kovalchuk said. "(Lemaire) told me I'm going to play on the point, and he said just do whatever you do all the time."

He was winding up for the one-timer when McAmmond passed the puck back to him, but he pulled back and quickly sent the puck back the other way.

"I saw the guy coming right on me, and we don't want to give the puck out of their zone with 30 seconds left or whatever was left on the clock," Kovalchuk said.

The respect Kovalchuk got on that play in particular is another reason why the Devils are thrilled to have this guy in their lineup. Wallin cheated, leaving a huge chunk of open ice in the middle of the zone that McAmmond used to get the pass across to Zajac.

If he doesn't cheat, maybe Kovalchuk is forced to shoot and then who knows what happens.

"We wish people don't respect him, but that opens up so much having him there," Brodeur told "With his shot from anywhere in the zone he can score, so people have a lot of respect and they go to him quick. That's what happened on the game-tying goal. If the guy doesn't run up there, he might block his one-timer, but who wants to block that one timer? And, the pass went across because the guy jumped and didn't want to give him space. That's what he is going to bring. It's not just goal scoring, it's what he does for the entire hockey team."

Kovalchuk admitted that at the start of the game he was a tad nervous.

"First shift maybe," he said, "but the guys started supporting me really well and it felt like I played here all along."

He skated mostly as the left wing on the second line with Dainius Zubrus and Jamie Langenbrunner, though there were times in the game where he was with Zubrus and Vladimir Zharkov or McAmmond and Brian Rolston.

He didn't seem to mind the line shuffling because it was Lemaire's attempt to find the right combinations. Lemaire actually said after the game he thinks the best combination for Kovalchuk might be to have him with Zach Parise and Zajac.

That trio didn't play together once during Friday's game, but it could debut Saturday when the Devils go across the river to play the Rangers. Both Parise and Kovalchuk are left wings and Lemaire wouldn't divulge who would move to the right side.

"That's a great line," Kovalchuk said smiling. "If we will play together, maybe tomorrow, they are great guys and they are great competitors. It will be a lot of fun."

"With the Thrashers we got quite a few (comebacks) this year, but it's great to play with that kind of crowd. They supported us all game long. Nobody left the building, and it kept going for us.""
-- Ilya Kovalchuk

Kovalchuk picked up his first point as a Devil 13:20 into the first period when he got the primary assist on Zubrus' fourth goal of the season. It gave the Devils a 1-0 lead.

He picked up his first penalty minutes in red and black 8:38 into the second period when he was whistled for interfering with Fredrik Sjostrom. The Leafs scored on the power play to take a 2-1 lead that eventually ballooned to 3-1 before the second intermission.

"I took that penalty in the second period and they scored," Kovalchuk said. "I felt we had to do something because it would be too good if we didn't."

There were times in the first two periods when it appeared that Kovalchuk was trying to feel out the system and his new linemates. All three of them said they were guilty of being too cute and trying to find each other instead of seeking out shots.

"I think in their zone especially, we got some chances to shoot the puck but Zubie and Langenbrunner were looking for me and I was looking for them, so we missed a couple of opportunities to put the puck on the net," Kovalchuk said.

However, in the third period, especially late, Kovalchuk showed more drive and determination to have the puck and make something happen with it.

It was just enough to help his new team pull off a miraculous win.

"It wasn't my best game, but I think we did alright for the first game," he said. "We got the two points, so it doesn't matter who played how. We got two points in the bank and we'll move on."

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