By IRA PODELL, Associated Press
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Ilya Kovalchuk watched from home as his New Jersey Devils got even with the Philadelphia Flyers without him.
It wasn't easy for the offensive superstar to sit out Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, not only because his presence in the lineup makes his team that much better, but also because he has waited a long time to have an impact in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
When No. 17 returned to action Thursday night for Game 3, Kovalchuk was determined to not just play but to make a difference, too.
Kovalchuk set up the Devils' first goal by Patrik Elias, scored in the second period, and then made a brilliant pass in overtime to Alexei Ponikarovsky, who scored the winning goal at 17:21 to give the Devils a 4-3 victory Thursday and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"I feel good," Kovalchuk said. "I was well-rested. Two days off is always good. Sometimes you've got to take one step back to make two steps forward. It was a little pressure, too. The guys played so well in Game 2 and you don't want to get back in the lineup just because you want to play. You want to fit in right away and play the way they did in Game 2, and I think we did that and we got a win."
The Devils won 4-1 in Philadelphia on Tuesday in Game 2 without Kovalchuk, and grabbed the series lead in their first home game of the series. New Jersey will also host Game 4 on Sunday and will look to take a commanding lead over its Atlantic Division rival.
If the game goes to overtime, the Devils might have an added edge again. Despite being short-handed twice in the extra period on Thursday, New Jersey improved to 3-1 in overtime in these playoffs. Four of the Devils' past five games have gone beyond regulation, including wins over Florida in Games 6 and 7 of the first round.
Kovalchuk was bothered by his undisclosed injury in the Florida series and in Game 1 against the Flyers. It was bad enough to force him to sit out one game, but he has since made a major recovery thanks to "a little magic" by the Devils' training staff.
"I feel a lot better compared to almost the whole first series and then the first game of the second series," he said. "I want to say thanks to all the trainers and doctors. They did a great job. Now, hopefully, I'm just going to move on and feel better every day."
The toughest part of the ordeal, outside of the pain, might have been Tuesday when he was home while his teammates were fighting things out in Philadelphia.
New Jersey trailed 1-0 in the series and in Game 2 before storming back and scoring four times in the third period for a 4-1 victory that tied things up.
Kovalchuk watched part of the game at home before taking a break to be with his daughter. When the tide turned in the Devils' favor while he was away from the TV, Kovalchuk didn't rush back to see what was happening in the game.
"I was in my house with my wife and a couple friends and I was so nervous," he said. "Then, I went to put my daughter in bed and I came back and (Adam) Larsson scored. So, I didn't watch a lot of hockey after that. Then, my wife told me that we won, and it was good.
"It was a little a good luck that I didn't sit in front of the TV, but I saw all the highlights and the end of the game. The guys did just unbelievable. The way they played set the tone for the rest of the series."
While he didn't have a hand in that one, Kovalchuk was the dominant player in Game 3.
Kovalchuk earned the second assist on Elias' power-play goal in the first period that tied it 1-1 at 12:33, just 6:25 after Brayden Schenn opened the scoring for Philadelphia on a power play.
Just 20 seconds after Elias tied it, Kovalchuk gave the Devils their first lead of the night when he zipped a shot past goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to make it 2-1. The goals were New Jersey's fastest in its playoff history.
"He is a world class player," Bryzgalov said. "He is very dangerous. He played hard. When the team needed him, he defended. He took advantage of his opportunities to shoot the puck. He is always dangerous. He is a great player."
And that was only part of the story.
Kovalchuk saved his best for the end when his brilliant vision of the ice caught the Flyers in a poor line change and ultimately produced the winning goal.
Kovalchuk saw a tired unit of Flyers head to the bench while the puck was still dangerously close to their end. He also saw Ponikarovsky coming onto the ice, and he hit him with a long pass into the Philadelphia end. Ponikarovsky skated in on Bryzgalov, and let go a shot that was stopped by the goalie. But the rebound came right back to him, and Ponikarovsky deftly switched to his backhand and put the puck in the net to end the game with his first career playoff overtime goal.