Once lost, Poni resurfaces

Devils forward Alexei Ponikarovsky (centre) celebrates his game-winning overtime goal against the...

Devils forward Alexei Ponikarovsky (centre) celebrates his game-winning overtime goal against the Flyers with teammates Andy Greene (left) and Travis Zajac in Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., May 3, 2012. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:08 AM ET

NEWARK - The disappearance of Alexei Ponikarovsky, once a scoring threat, ended in the eighteenth minute of the tenth game of this Stanley Cup season for the New Jersey Devils.

He cut to the front of the net unattended, took a pass from Ilya Kovalchuk and needed a shot and his own rebound to score his first and only goal of these playoffs in Thursday's 4-3 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers. His first goal of real importance in, oh, about a lifetime ago.

Overtime usually produces the least likely of heroes, the hackers and whackers, and that’s what Ponikarovsky has become since he was exiled from Toronto three seasons ago after starting his career with the Maple Leafs. His career proceeded to skid off the tracks.

He was a somebody back then -- a 100 goal scorer in five seasons -- whose touch and prominence evaporated while wearing NHL uniforms in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and later Carolina. And when he scored the winner on Philadelphia's Ilya Bryzgalov Thursday night, he deserved to throw up his arms, pump his fist, take a moment to savour and take stock of all that’s happened with a career spiraling out of control in the wrong direction. Only it didn’t happen that way.

“I knew it was in,” said the man they call Poni. “I didn’t have time to celebrate because everybody jumped on me right away. It was a great feeling in the pile.”

“What did he feel like?” he was asked.

“It felt like we won,” he said with a wide smile. A smile that also had gone missing with each disappointing stop in his creer.

Ponikarovsky was sent to Pittsburgh from Toronto where he was supposed to be a major player alongside Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Even though Ponikarovsky was blessed with size and a terrific ability to skate, it didn’t seem to work. The Penguins didn’t care to re-sign at the end of his partial season there.

He signed on in Los Angeles where the Kings needed what he brought: some size, some speed, some handy work along the boards. You don’t score 100 goals in five years without being able to shoot, either. But Ponikarovsky wasn't able to live up to his role. The Kings, well on their way in these Stanley Cup playoffs, made the easy decision to let Ponikarovsky go.

Then came last summer. Teams weren’t exactly clamouring for Ponikarovsky’s services. In a moment of uncertainty, Carolina signed him -- and former Toronto teammate Tomas Kaberle of all people -- but 49 games into the season the Hurricanes changed courses. They had already gotten rid of Kaberle and the time was right to say good-bye to Ponikarovsky.

In a deal almost no one paid attention to, the Devils brought in Ponikarovsky in exchange for a minor league defenceman and a fourth-round pick.

The deal is a win now no matter what else happens. New Jersey has a 2-1 lead over favoured Philadelphia in the second-round of the Eastern Conference semifinals and have that difficult-to-beat look about them.

Kovalchuk, with bad back, scored a goal and set up two others Thursday. Ponikarovsky scored the overtime-winner at 17:21 on his team-leading fourth shot of the night to go along with an assist.

A two-point game for Ponikarovsky, who had scored just three goals in his previous 47 playoff games.

“I’m not much of a statistics guy,” Ponikarovsky said. “I let you guys keep track of these things.”

What’s important to keep track of is where Ponikarovsky fits in on coach Peter DeBoer’s lineup. The winger isn’t the odd man out the way he was previously. If he wasn’t playing with Adam Henrique and Kovalchuk, he was playing with Travis Zajac. Either way, it’s a nice fit. It’s a spot that matters in the lineup. On a team with Zach Parise, Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias and so many useful players like Dainus Zubrus and Zajac, Ponikarovsky’s just another guy.

But sometimes, just another guy scores in overtime.

“When I came here, I knew this was a team with a big history and they know how to win,” Ponikarovsky said. “When I came here, I knew what I had to do and what I expect and what they expect from me.

“I’m just trying to work hard and put my pride and soul into it.”

The metaphors may be mixed, but on this night it didn’t matter. Alexei Ponikarovsky scored the biggest goal of his hockey life.

“Everybody in this game struggles,” the overtime hero said. “One season up, next season down. I kept pushing. You do that, good things are going to happen to you.”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


Photos