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Frustrated Kovalchuk nets goal, 3 points in Devils' playoff win over Flyers

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Frustrated Kovalchuk nets goal, 3 points in Devils' playoff win over Flyers

The Canadian Press
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It was hard to tell what was going to snap first, Ilya Kovalchuk's goal drought or the struggling forward's frayed nerves.

Now that he has a goal and a win to celebrate, maybe he will relax and put his offensive firepower on full display.

Kovalchuk had two assists and an insurance goal into an empty net on Friday night in the New Jersey Devils' 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers that tied the first-round Eastern Conference playoff series at 1-all.

It was Kovalchuk's first career NHL post-season win in six tries.

"I knew we were going to win," the suddenly confident Kovalchuk said. "When we came to the rink tonight, there was no doubt in our minds. We played hard. We battled hard. It was great teamwork."

Kovalchuk was traded in February by the Atlanta Thrashers to the New Jersey Devils, who were seeking a pure scorer to aid in their pursuit of a fourth Stanley Cup title. Through most of the first two games of the series, the Devils and Kovalchuk were anxiously waiting for him to find the net.

When he finally did, the Devils knew they were back in the series. The next two games of the best-of-seven matchup will be played in Philadelphia before the teams return to New Jersey for Game 5.

"I don't care about goals," Kovalchuk said. "It was a great win and now we're tied 1-1. It's not going to be easy in their building, but we are ready for it."

The frustration was mounting for Kovalchuk, who had no points on four shots in the series-opening 2-1 loss on Wednesday. He assisted on New Jersey's second and third goals in Game 2 but hurt the Devils with a series of penalties.

Kovalchuk was whistled for elbowing Philadelphia's Daniel Carcillo in the head in the first period, an infraction that produced a short-handed goal for the Devils.

In the second period, Kovalchuk engaged in a jousting match with Darroll Powe before a faceoff. Once the puck dropped, he turned his attention to Mike Richards and delivered a slash to the back of the ankles of the Flyers captain, an action that also landed him in the penalty box.

Kovalchuk wasn't done there.

At the end of a scrum in front of the Philadelphia net, Kovalchuk was entangled with Powe again and fell on top of the Flyers forward. They both went to the box and were there when the Flyers scored the goal that made it 3-3 late in the period.

"They always play a physical game and we have to catch up with them," Kovalchuk said. "They are a big strong team and it is going to be a long series. I'm an emotional guy. I should stay away from those little battles in front of the net. We have to play tough, and sometimes it happens."

Kovalchuk had an opportunity to be the hero in the third when he streaked into the Philadelphia zone on a 2-on-1 rush, but his drive sailed over the top of the net. The game remained tied, but not for long as Dainius Zubrus scored moments later to put New Jersey in front for good.

Kovalchuk scored at least 40 goals in each of the previous five seasons with the Thrashers and he had 31 at the time he was traded. One thing he lacked was playoff experience.

He helped the Devils win the Atlantic Division and secure the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with 10 goals and 17 assists in 27 games after the trade.

Before this series against Philadelphia, Kovalchuk had played in only four post-season games ? all losses for Atlanta in a first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers in 2007. Kovalchuk did little to help the cause then as he had only one goal and one assist.

Kovalchuk has lots on the line this time. He is trying to make his mark on a new team that has known great playoff success. If he doesn't hit his full stride soon it could damage the Devils' chances at a long playoff run and in turn lessen his value on the free agent market this summer.

"He's the type of player that has seen it all before," Richards said. "We want to slow him down as much as possible. There is not much you can do to him to discourage him from playing hard."

The Thrashers didn't have the financial wherewithal to keep Kovalchuk in Atlanta. They offered him a US$101 million, 12-year extension this year that was rejected. Once that happened it was just a matter of time until the Thrashers cut their losses and dealt him away.

Whether the Devils, or any other team for that matter, is willing to meet the Russian star's price remains to be seen.

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Frustrated Kovalchuk nets goal, 3 points in Devils' playoff win over Flyers