It’s often said the path to any major professional sports championship begins in your own division. Successfully navigate your way through your fiercest rivals, and you set yourself up for bigger things down the road.
With back-to-back Eastern Conference championships, including a Stanley Cup victory last June, there is little doubt the Penguins are the Alpha male in the Atlantic Division, and the other four teams are scrambling to play catch-up. It appears these teams are throwing all their chips in the pot in an effort to do so.
“Our division is constantly trying to improve all the time,” Sidney Crosby
said. “It’s just the way I think every team is used to seeing that, and that’s the way it is.”
During the offseason, the Philadelphia Flyers believed they needed a defensive upgrade, so they traded for former Hart Norris Trophy winner Chris Pronger. In New York, the Rangers elected to go for offense, signing Slovakian sniper Marian Gaborik.
New Jersey, which until Thursday had elected to refrain from making a huge splash, sent major shockwaves through the National Hockey League. The Devils are going full throttle in their attempt to overthrow the Penguins by acquiring Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk in a blockbuster trade from the Atlanta Thrashers.
Certainly, it was of interest to watch, because you heard that he was going. I think we would have liked to see him go out of our conference, because he’s a dangerous player. He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to have to go through for the rest of the season here. - Dan Bylsma
“Certainly, it was of interest to watch, because you heard that he was going,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think we would have liked to see him go out of our conference, because he’s a dangerous player. He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to have to go through for the rest of the season here.”
In exchange for bringing Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela to The Garden State, New Jersey shipped promising forward Nicklas Bergfors, puck-moving defenseman Johnny Oduya, top prospect Patrice Cormier and this season’s No. 1 draft pick to the Thrashers.
“That was obviously a huge one,” Brooks Orpik
said. “I kind of felt bad for (general manager) Don Waddell down in Atlanta because it seemed like he did everything he could to try to keep him.
“That was something you really didn’t see coming. That was kind of out of (New Jersey general manager) Lou Lamoriello’s element I guess to make a big deal like that, especially for that big of a player.”
“I wasn’t surprised a whole lot,” Crosby said. “It was something that was being talked about for a long time. Obviously, Jersey is having a good year, and they want to get another guy to push them forward. He’s a superstar in this league, so he’s a good pickup for them.”
“It easily puts them as one of the more dangerous offensive teams, and when you think of them, you think of a very sound defensive and position,” Bylsma said. “You look for their offense off that, and now you add a goal scorer. It adds a different dimension to what you originally might think of the Devils’ team.”
Pittsburgh and New Jersey, two teams which are separated by one point heading into Friday’s action, figure to battle for the Atlantic Division crown – and the guaranteed home-ice advantage which accompanies it – all the way through the season-finale on April 11.
The teams have two meetings remaining in the regular season – both in New Jersey – and those matchups will occur in a six-day period following the Olympic break on March 12 and 17.
Never one to rush into a deal just to make a move, Lamoriello did have to sense that he needed to make some sort of addition if his squad was going to have enough offense to withstand a late-season rush by the Penguins.
Over the past 10 games, the Penguins and Devils have clearly been two teams heading in opposite directions. Pittsburgh is once again red-hot – winners of seven of its past 10, while New Jersey is just 3-6-1 over the same span.
Over the Devils’ past five games, a period in which they have won just once, New Jersey has scored just eight goals. They enter Friday’s games 12th in the Eastern Conference with 146 goals as a team.
Goal scoring should be less of a concern now with Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire sending a top power-play unit featuring Kovalchuk (31 goals), Zach Parise (25 goals) and Travis Zajac (29 assists) over the boards.
“It’s going to change their power play for sure,” Byslma said. “It’s going to add more dynamic and a dangerous shot. We’ve seen him in the last couple of years. It’s going to change what I’m assuming will be the top line with his ability to put the puck in the net and the speed that he brings to the game.”
You won’t find many detractors who would ever take away from the offensive exploits of Kovalchuk. But the one question reporters threw around the Penguins locker room on Friday was whether Kovalchuk could fit in defensively to the tight-checking, trapping style the Devils employ.
“It’s hard to say,” Orpik said. “We have been lucky enough when we got (Marian) Hossa and last year when we got (Chris) Kunitz, (Bill) Guerin and (Craig) Adams that those guys fit in really well.
“If you have a team that is playing very well sometimes you don’t want to add much or take away from what got you to that point. Anytime you can add a guy who scores 50 goals a year it’s probably going to help you.”
He’s a smart player. He’s a good player. I’m sure he wants to win. When you have those things, guys are willing to do whatever it takes. I’m sure being part of that team, everyone has to buy in, and he will, too. - Sidney Crosby
“He’s a smart player,” Crosby said. “He’s a good player. I’m sure he wants to win. When you have those things, guys are willing to do whatever it takes. I’m sure being part of that team, everyone has to buy in, and he will, too.”
Two Penguins who have played with Kovalchuk in the past, Sergei Gonchar (Russia International Teams) and Pascal Dupuis
(Atlanta Thrashers), both believe Kovalchuk is up to the challenge.
“When we played together, he actually played pretty hard defensively when we made the playoffs,” Dupuis said. “I think he can do it.”
“He is the guy who likes to create things by doing things a little differently,” Gonchar said. “At the same time I know him well enough to understand he is a guy who wants to win. Obviously, with the Devils having a good team, they have a good chance to play well in the playoffs. I am assuming that he will adjust himself and make sure he does everything he can to play within the system.”
Gonchar also believes Kovalchuk will bring another quality to the Devils which is often overlooked when the sniper’s game is discussed.
“Since (Atlanta) made him the captain the team has been playing much better,” Gonchar said. “That shows what kind of leader he is. When you are the captain you have a lot of responsibility. When you do that well, your team plays better. Since he became (Atlanta’s) captain, that had been the case.”
Will all of these positive traits Kovalchuk brings be enough for the Devils to dethrone the Penguins? That’s something in which the answer won’t be provided until sometime later this spring.