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More defensive-minded Kovy producing offensively

by Dan Rosen
Ilya Kovalchuk has so much respect for Jacques Lemaire and thinks he's one of the greatest hockey minds that the following question had to be asked of the 65-year-old coach:

Can he coach the Devils for another 14 seasons?

Lemaire, cracking up, quickly picked up on the concept that 14 seasons is what Kovalchuk will have left on his deal with the Devils after this season.

"My contract is shorter than that," he said with a laugh.

Jokes aside, Kovalchuk knows he better learn all he can now from Lemaire because there's no guarantee the Cup-winning coach will be around beyond April. According to Lemaire, the Devils' $100 million star begs for knowledge on a daily basis.

"He wants to learn," Lemaire said. "He wants to learn and he asks me to talk to him about the game, what I want him to do. He says, 'I want to improve,' and I think he's improving big time -- big time."

Kovalchuk has 6 goals and 5 assists in 15 games since Lemaire took over the slumping Devils and started to turn them around. More importantly, he's better than a point-per-game player with a plus-3 rating over the past seven games.

Think it's a coincidence the Devils are 6-0-1 during that same stretch?

Think again.

"Now he's aware of the defensive game," Lemaire said. "He's been scoring and thinking about the defensive game, which is good. Before he wasn't thinking about the defensive game and he wasn't scoring. He wants to learn. He wants to do it. He wants one day to kill penalties. That's what he wants. He's never done it and that's what he wants. And he will."

Kovalchuk has been taking the odd shorthanded shift here and there. He said Lemaire has been riding him to be better on the defensive side.

"He's on me all the time, and I like that," Kovalchuk said. "He puts that pressure on me, but if you work hard he gives you that opportunity."

Added Lemaire: "I talked to him about (penalty) killing and he seemed excited, so I said, 'I'll be on you if you want that.' He said, 'Oh, I don't mind.' Very good. Let's see how long he's going to last."

Kovalchuk said beyond Lemaire's experience and knowledge, the coach's open-door policy makes him comfortable.

"On our team it doesn't matter how old you are or how long your contract is, you can go talk to the coach all the time," Kovalchuk said. "We have a lot of guys that are still learning, and I'm one of them. I want to be better."

Even after twice being a 50-goal scorer in the NHL?

"You always got room for improvement," Kovalchuk said. "Even if you ask Marty (Brodeur) he will tell you the same thing. I want to be better."

To that Lemaire emphatically says, "Good."

Now let's dance around the East and see what's shakin'. The teams, as always, are listed in order of the standings:

 Philadelphia Flyers (32-12-5, 69 points)

The Flyers are guaranteed to enter the All-Star break as the top team in the conference, a spot they've held for a while now. They showed a national television audience how good they can be Sunday by beating the Blackhawks in Chicago 4-1. The only goal they allowed was via a penalty shot. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky won his fifth in a row and is 20-6-3 this season. James van Riemsdyk sat out Sunday and is questionable for Tuesday's game against the Canadiens with a lower-body injury.

 Tampa Bay Lightning (30-15-5, 65 points)

The Lightning kicked off a 12-game homestand with a 7-1 win against the slumping Thrashers. They've won four in a row, and with a win Tuesday against Toronto the Lightning could head into the All-Star break as the hottest team in the NHL. A key will be avoiding complacency when the schedule resumes next week. They'll be home almost all of February (no road game until Feb. 27), and sometimes for players too much time at home isn't a good thing because the focus isn't strictly on hockey.

 Boston Bruins (27-15-7, 61 points)

Marc Savard is concussed again. The Bruins couldn't have gotten worse news about their star center, who had to leave their game Saturday after being hit by Colorado's Matt Hunwick, a former Bruin. Savard returned to Boston immediately and the team revealed that he was diagnosed with a concussion. Savard had missed the first 23 games of the season because he still was recovering from the concussion he suffered last season on a hit by Matt Cooke on March 7 in Pittsburgh. The Bruins couldn't score Monday in Los Angeles without him, though they did fire 34 shots at goalie Jonathan Quick in a 2-0 loss.

 Pittsburgh Penguins (30-15-4, 64 points)

The main story with the Penguins continues to be about who isn't on the ice. Sidney Crosby (concussion) has not resumed skating yet and will miss his ninth straight game Tuesday when the Islanders come to Pittsburgh. On Monday, Crosby officially withdrew from the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover due to his lingering post-concussion symptoms. Evgeni Malkin also will miss All-Star Weekend due to a combination of a sinus infection and a nagging left knee injury, which will sideline him for a third straight game Tuesday. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has won four of its last five games.

 Washington Capitals (27-14-9, 63 points)

The offense that returned in Toronto -- in part because of Alex Ovechkin's hat trick -- sagged on home ice Monday in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Rangers. The Caps just couldn't fight through the Rangers' grind-it-out defensive style. They had only 11 shots through two periods, but were clinging to a 1-0 lead until Marian Gaborik scored with just under seven minutes remaining. Washington still has a point in 15 of its last 18 games to keep pace in the tightly-packed Eastern Conference, but it has lost seven straight overtime/shootout games.

 New York Rangers (29-19-3, 61 points)

The infirmary took a trip to Washington on Monday and picked up two points. How about that? Defenseman Dan Girardi (sore rib muscle) joined the wounded list and was scratched for the first time in 331 games. The Rangers continue to play without Brandon Dubinsky (stress fracture in leg), Ryan Callahan (broken hand), Erik Christensen (knee), Alex Frolov (knee), Vinny Prospal (knee), Derek Boogaard (shoulder) and Ruslan Fedotenko (shoulder). The amount of injuries the team has dealt with this season is stunning. Remember that Chris Drury missed 31 games earlier in the season and Gaborik has sat out 14 as well.

 Montreal Canadiens (27-17-5, 59 points)

It's been a good month for the Canadiens (6-1-3), but it'll be a great one if they pull off a win Tuesday in Philadelphia. Montreal has come back nicely from a sub-par December (6-8-1), mainly because of their strong defense and penalty killing. The Canadiens rank in the top five in goals-against and on the penalty kill. Max Pacioretty has 3 goals in the last two games, giving him 6 in 19 games this season. Jeff Halpern, who has missed the past two games, traveled to Philadelphia and could be in the lineup Tuesday.

 Atlanta Thrashers (23-19-9, 55 points)

There are some worried Thrashers fans out there wondering if their team peaked too early. The concerns are legitimate considering Atlanta is winless in seven of its last eight games (1-4-3), starting with an embarrassing 9-3 loss to Toronto on home ice on Jan. 7. The Thrashers also gave up seven goals Sunday to Tampa Bay. In fact, they've given up five or more in four of their last eight games.

 Carolina Hurricanes (24-19-6, 54 points)

The Hurricanes have a chance to move into a playoff spot at the All-Star break with a win Wednesday against the Islanders and a Thrashers loss to Washington. They could also get there with an overtime or shootout loss on Long Island, but Atlanta would have to lose in regulation. Considering the start to Carolina's season -- in Finland for two games and then a five-game road trip upon returning to North America -- it's pretty remarkable that the Hurricanes could be in a playoff spot come the break. They are 9-4-2 in their last 15 games.

 Buffalo Sabres (22-21-5, 49 points)

The Sabres quietly are 8-3-1 in their last 12 games and they've won three of their last four. Still, they don't have much to show for it and they haven't been able to get out of 10th place. A win Tuesday against the slumping Senators would be a huge boost for Buffalo because it won't play again until next Friday. That's nine days between games, and the last thing the Sabres want is to sit that long after a loss to a team they should beat. So, yes, Tuesday's game is pretty big.

 Florida Panthers (21-21-5, 47 points)

The Panthers haven't won a game since Jan. 15, going 0-1-3 in their last four. They're in the middle of a six-game road swing that is broken up by the All-Star break. This seems to be a weekly theme when we write about the Panthers, but if they don't have a good stretch soon there should be nothing stopping GM Dale Tallon from looking to be a seller at the trade deadline. Florida hasn't scored more than three goals in regulation since Dec. 23.

 Toronto Maple Leafs (19-24-5, 43 points)

Toronto hasn't been able to build on the four-game win streak it put together earlier in the month. The Maple Leafs are 1-4-1 since the streak and have been outscored 22-6 in the four regulation losses. Nikolai Kulemin had his face busted open by a Tim Gleason punch at the end of the first period of Monday's 6-4 loss at Carolina. The Leafs' players weren't happy with Gleason's decision to drop the gloves with Kulemin, who until that instance had never fought in an NHL game.

 Ottawa Senators (17-25-7, 41 points)

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk did his best to end the speculation about job security for coach Cory Clouston and GM Bryan Murray by telling the Ottawa Sun he will not call for any in-season firings. With that, we have to assume that the Senators will continue to try to turn around their failing season under Clouston's guidance, with Murray perhaps pulling the trigger on a trade or two to attempt to make the team better. The Senators are coming off a 7-1 loss to Montreal, which came after a 6-2 defeat in Philadelphia. Murray told the Ottawa Sun on Monday that he wants to stay on as GM past this season.

 New York Islanders (15-25-7, 37 points)

The Islanders have been the biggest newsmakers in the NHL since the weekend with the addition of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who still is refusing to report to Long Island despite becoming Islanders property via a Saturday waiver claim. The beat goes on for the Isles, who play in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and host Carolina on Wednesday. After going 6-1-1 in their last eight games of December, they are trying to salvage January. They are 4-6-1 this month.

 New Jersey Devils (16-39-3, 35 points)

The Devils' current hot streak can be looked at in one of two ways: 1) Yes, finally they are playing the hockey we've come to expect from the Devils and it took the re-hiring of coach Jacques Lemaire to get it done. 2) They are wasting their chance to be in the best position to secure the No. 1 pick in the 2011 Entry Draft. Obviously we don't have to point out which way the Devils are looking at it. They're happy to finally be playing some quality hockey and getting the results. Martin Brodeur was the League's third star last week when he went 3-0-0 with a 1.34 goals-against average and .949 save percentage.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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