Kovalchuk proving his worth

After signing a 15-year, $100-million contract with the Devils two years ago, forward Ilya...

After signing a 15-year, $100-million contract with the Devils two years ago, forward Ilya Kovalchuk is paying it off now with his post-season performance. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters file photo)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:37 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA - At some point during the next three seasons -- or perhaps even two -- Ilya Kovalchuk should become the first Russian to reach the 500-goal mark in the NHL.

But it's what he has done over the past month that has made it time to start taking the New Jersey Devils forward seriously.

Perhaps never has such a productive 10-year career been viewed with such skepticism. For all his talent, it certainly was easier to mock Kovalchuk than marvel at him, given his reputation for being an individual star in a team game.

In the celebration in the Devils dressing room Tuesday night after they eliminated the Philadalphia Flyers in five games, Kovalchuk, 29, even poked fun at himself, given that his normal pastime come early May is nowhere near what it is about to be over the coming weeks.

"For the first time in nine years I'm not going to the world championship," Kovalchuk said after scoring one goal and assisting on another to help put the Flyers out of their misery, 3-1.

"It's fun. Everything is happening for the first time. We'll see where it ends up."

Yes, the fact Kovalchuk was always a candidate for the worlds wasn't a career achievement. Though not all of his doing, obviously, it became easy to knock him for being a regular-season wonder with the Atlanta Thrashers and, lately, the Devils.

How crazy, then, that the Devils find themselves preparing for the Eastern Conference final, precisely because Kovalchuk is fitting into a team game? His superstar status is undeniable as shown by his seven points in the Flyers series alone, including the big insurance goal early in the third period in Tuesday's clincher.

But so much about the enigmatic Kovalchuk made him an easy target, even if he has been better than a point-a-game player throughout his career.

All those seasons on bad teams in Atlanta where he piled up stats but only once made it to the post-season and even then not past the first round. Then came the 15-year, $100-million contract with the Devils two years ago, which received widespread criticism around the league on multiple levels. Rival general managers didn't like the term and its supposed manipulation of the salary cap, while those who questioned Kovalchuk's heart thought it was a wild overpayment.

It didn't help that in his first full season (2010-11) in New Jersey, the Devils missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons. And how do you suppose that one went over?

"It's tough because Kovy spent a lot of time in Atlanta where they didn't really make the playoffs for all those years so he never really had an opportunity to prove himself," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "It was probably easy to be critical because of that.

"But with us, he has played great. He's a big part of our team."

Kovalchuk isn't a natural leader, probably never will be. But surround him with those who are and suddenly the pressure lightens. First-year Devils coach Peter DeBoer's approach has been to emphasize the team and to demand production up and down the forward group. The talent and scoring was spread so deep that the Flyers couldn't compete.

But rarely can you win a Cup without some noteworthy star performances, the type of which Kovalchuk has been capable throughout his NHL career. The bigger the games, the bigger the need for star power and the first overall pick in the 2001 draft is hinting that he's ready to deliver.

His highlight reel against the Flyers included a pretty assist on the overtime winner in Game 3 and the sniper shot for the third goal on Tuesday. Before Wednesday's Rangers-Capitals game, Kovalchuk was third overall in playoff scoring and first among players still remaining.

"It's a breakthrough season for him," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "He"šs scoring important goals and for him it's probably a monkey off of his back. He hasn't been on a successful team in his career and now he's getting rewarded."

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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