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X-Factor: Kovalchuk in search of playoff breakthrough

by Mike G. Morreale

In nine career Stanley Cup Playoff games, Ilya Kovalchuk has more penalty minutes than points. It is a statistical anomaly of the highest order considering the dynamic Russian wing has averaged better than a point per game in close to 800 regular-season appearances.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk
Left Wing - NJD
GOALS: 37 | ASST: 46 | PTS: 83
SOG: 310 | +/-: -9
In his defense, the sample size is rather small. Kovalchuk was assessed 19 penalty minutes during the opening round of the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Atlanta Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers. He had two goals, six points and six penalty minutes in five postseason games with the Devils in 2010 when the team lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.

But judging by his extraordinary play this season, this postseason might be different for Kovalchuk when it comes to his ratio of points to penalty minutes in the postseason. That's precisely what needs to happen in order for the Devils to make a serious run at the ultimate prize in the end.

Kovalchuk not only produced his highest goal and point total in four seasons, but established a career-high for shorthanded goals. However, what makes this postseason different from the previous two for Kovalchuk is the team that surrounds him.

"I feel like we have a great team," Kovalchuk told The Star-Ledger recently. "This is a great locker room. The guys want to play for each other. It's a great coaching staff and I think we really have a good chance. We just have to be on top of our game."

A veteran of 10 NHL seasons, Kovalchuk led New Jersey in multiple-point games and established an NHL record for game-deciding shootout goals, examples of clutch scoring that further suggest Kovalcuk is destined for an offensive breakout this postseason.

"It's obviously better than last year," Kovalchuk said. "It all starts with winning. You can't be happy with yourself even if you score as many goals as you want. You try your best every night, but when the team is winning and everybody is doing well, it helps a lot."

The odds of Kovalchuk becoming the first Russian player to score 500 career goals is pretty good, considering he turns 29 less than a week after the playoffs begin and has a contract through 2025 with the Devils. While that would be quite an accomplishment, hockey historians will likely view him a failure when it mattered most unless Kovalchuk starts to produce in the playoffs,.

And really, Kovalchuk probably deserves better.

This is his chance to prove it.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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