Just when the New York Rangers
thought they saw the last of Ilya Kovalchuk
at Madison Square Garden this season, the New Jersey Devils
made a blockbuster deal to acquire the superstar from the Atlanta Thrashers
And guess who's coming to visit again Saturday night.
After his two-point debut with the Devils in a stirring 4-3 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs
on Friday night, Kovalchuk will get his first taste of one of the NHL's best rivalries when he faces the Rangers at MSG (7 p.m., RDS) for the first time while wearing the red and black. In two games at MSG this season, both Atlanta wins, Kovalchuk has a goal, three assists and a shootout goal that helped the Thrashers earn a victory on Dec. 14.
In 12 career games at MSG, Kovalchuk has 5 goals and 7 assists.
"I played with him about a year and he's easily one of the top five most talented players I've ever played with," Rangers forward Erik Christensen
, who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta, told Andrew Gross of the Bergen Record. "For a team that plays so well defensively, he's going to boost the offense. They're going to be tough. I can't imagine seeing him in another uniform."
The biggest problem for the Rangers, who have lost 7 of 8 and sit in 11th in the Eastern Conference, could be the boost Kovalchuk provides on the power play. He operates from the point, much in the same way that Washington's Alexander Ovechkin does when the Caps have the man advantage. It hurt the Rangers on Thursday night, when the Caps scored three power-play goals on their way to a 6-5 victory.
Kovalchuk's presence at the top of the zone helped set up Travis Zajac
's game-tying power-play goal in the final seconds against the Maple Leafs on Saturday. Just like Ovechkin, Kovalchuk doesn't need to score to be a factor. Just his ability to draw the attention of the defense can open passing lanes for his talented teammates.
"It's not a question of him scoring all the time," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur
said. "At the end there, they were so afraid to give up that one-timer that opened lanes. And other players made that play to score."
"They have to play Kovalchuk just because of his shot," Zajac said. "It opened up a lane for me. I hit it pretty good. I don't know if I could do it again."
Another scary thought for the Rangers is that Kovalchuk and the Devils looked disjointed and out of sync for the better part of Friday's game before finally clicking in the final minutes, scoring three goals to beat the Leafs. Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner
admitted that players might have been force-feeding the puck to Kovalchuk and standing around watching him.
If the Devils can get past being star struck and find their game early Saturday, it could spell trouble for the Rangers.
"When he's on the ice, everyone is looking around to see where he is," Brodeur said. "That's something we've never had. It's going to take time. When we get the right players together, he's going to feel better."
The Rangers are hoping it takes Kovalchuk at least one more game to feel better.