“I think that [the Stanley Cup] is the toughest trophy to win, and it’s a great opportunity to be able to get to the playoffs, and it’s anybody’s game now,” Kovalchuk said. “Everyone has the same goal. We just need to work hard, be like a family, and good things will happen.”
Kovalchuk reached the Stanley Cup finals with New Jersey in 2012, but the Devils fell to the Los Angeles Kings. Now his former teammates and coaches are rooting for his success — and still believe in his big-game magic — with the Capitals.
Vegas Golden Knights Coach Peter DeBoer, who coached Kovalchuk in New Jersey during that Cup run, said he has no doubt the Russian has “a lot of gas left in the tank.”
“I coached Jaromir Jagr at 40, and Kovy has the same type of engine,” DeBoer said. “When I had him in New Jersey, I think I played him 24 minutes a night and he was the highest minute forward in the league in terms of playing time, so we relied on him in every situation.”
Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, the former captain of the Devils, said it would be “awesome” to see his old linemate win the Cup. He not only praised Kovalchuk’s game — his ability to score, beat goalies clean and carry the puck up the ice — but the Russian’s willingness to drop the gloves after opponents took runs at teammates.
“You don’t expect that out of a guy who has been a career point per [game] player and, you know, 50-goal scorer,” Parise said. “To me … it is just something that I wasn’t expecting when he signed with us. … There were so many times on the bench when you would look at the guy next to you and say ‘Wow,’ you know? He was great.”
Kovalchuk is older now, but observers still see the same type of player he was in his late 20s. When Parise played against him after Kovalchuk returned to the NHL in 2018 following a lengthy stint playing in Russia, and again when the Wild faced Washington shortly before the league shut down in March amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, he thought Kovalchuk looked “very motivated and excited to be where he was.”
“You could just tell he was excited he was playing for the Capitals, and I thought he looked great,” Parise said.
Bob Hartley, who is coaching in the Kontinental Hockey League and who coached Kovalchuk on the Atlanta Thrashers, said one of the biggest parts of Kovalchuk’s game that is overlooked is his ability to avoid big injuries. Yes, Kovalchuk maybe has lost a fraction of a second in speed, but he is still a gifted athlete.
“He knows how to create space for himself and the way that he shoots the puck and his release — that is always what amazed me with Kovy,” Hartley said. “The little fraction of the second that the puck is on his stick — [it’s a] powerful shot, accurate shot.”
Kovalchuk’s passion for the game, described by Hartley as similar to Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin’s, is one of his driving factors, as well as his love for scoring.
“He is a kid,” Hartley said. “I coached him as a kid, I watched him since his return to the NHL and more importantly in his games in Montreal where he loved to score goals. Gosh, he is like a kid in a candy store when that red light goes on. He drops to the glass. He has that big smile. … When he scores, he shares that joy, and for me that is the passion of hockey. There is a lot of passion left in him, and there is no doubt in my mind that there is a lot of good hockey left in him.”
Kovalchuk had one goal and three assists in seven games with Washington before the season paused March 12. Before he was traded to the Capitals, he had six goals and seven assists in 22 games for the Canadiens this season. He also had three goals and six assists in 17 games for the Kings before they released him in December.
“A goal scorer is always a goal scorer,” said Hartley, who called Kovalchuk a “man of the big occasions.” “That is one thing that you can’t teach as a coach, and that is one thing you can’t take away from the player. He knows how to score goals. He’s always produced.”
Since 2001, when Atlanta made Kovalchuk the top pick in the draft, Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are No. 1 and No. 2 in overtime goals in the NHL. Ovechkin, who entered the league in 2005, has 23, and Kovalchuk has 17. Daniel Sedin and Sidney Crosby, who also debuted in 2005, have 16 in that same span.
“I know one thing: That guy has got a flare for the dramatics, and he knows how to produce at big times,” NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said of Kovalchuk. “He is one of those players. He has always had it. [Carolina’s] Justin Williams is a perfect example of that, and I could see Ilya Kovalchuk playing that kind of a role for the Capitals because his skill level is still extremely high.”
Hartley could also see this Capitals team, especially its prominent Russians, try to rally around Kovalchuk to try to win him his first Cup.
Hartley compared the situation to his 2001 Stanley Cup win with the Colorado Avalanche when the team rallied around Ray Bourque. The previous year, Colorado lost in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals after acquiring Bourque at the trade deadline. So, the following season, the team’s rallying cry was, “Let’s win one for Ray.”
Hartley doesn’t believe this will be Kovalchuk’s last season, but his presence and drive to win should be a “very motivating factor to Kovy, plus more importantly for his partners to help achieve his dreams.”
“He is another weapon for us after all the other weapons we have throughout the lineup,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. “I am maybe most excited to watch him here in the playoffs. He’s kind of got that Ovi-ness extra gear, or maybe Ovi has his — I don’t know — that extra gear that they seem to push themselves when they get real competitive.”
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