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By Sean Hartnett
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Last Friday, a Russian meteor crashed toward Chelyabinsk, Russia.
To see it plunging toward Earth and exploding in the sky as it continued its descent was a breathtaking moment, though unfortunate for the 1,000-plus injured.
Sports fans live for breathtaking moments — and the NHL constantly delivers on a nightly basis. On Thursday, the New Jersey Devils fought back from a 2-1 third-period deficit to beat the Washington Capitals, remaining even on points with the Eastern Conference-leading Montreal Canadiens.
The Capitals’ propensity to lock themselves in the penalty box offered the Devils a 5-on-3 power play advantage — an opportunity that had an Ilya Kovalchuk rocket written all over it.
Patrik Elias waited patiently as Kovalchuk skated to the center of the point and slid a one-timer ready pass that Kovalchuk blasted past Capitals’ net-minder Braden Holtby. It streaked like a meteor, and considering the amount of force Kovalchuk put behind his shot, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see bits and pieces of vulcanized rubber scatted around Holtby’s crease.
If Pavel Bure was rightfully nicknamed “The Russian Rocket,” maybe Kovalchuk deserves a better nickname than the “Goal-valchuk” moniker some Devils fans bestow upon him. Since Kovalchuk grew up two hours from Moscow in Tver, Russia — so I guess the “The Moscow Meteor” doesn’t fit the bill either.
Back to the Devils as a team, who always find a way to embrace the moment and refuse to allow comebacks to evade them. Sometimes, it’s through a power blast like the one Kovalchuk unleashed to beat the Caps and on other occasions — it’s a dogged and determined effort in front of net by David Clarkson or Adam Henrique required to score an ugly, yet crucial garbage goal.
Whether stunning or hard-fought, the Devils have a knack for scoring late dramatic goals that their Hudson River-rival New York Rangers are sorely lacking.
Outside of inspirational captain Ryan Callahan, gifted scorer Marian Gaborik, emerging star Carl Hagelin and injured superstar Rick Nash — there aren’t a lot of players who Rangers fans can point to with confidence as players they know will show up in the late moments and grab a crucial go-ahead goal.
Look at the Devils. Kovalchuk, Clarkson, Elias, Henrique and Travis Zajac are names and personalities you know have the fortitude to get that important goal. Add to that the unheralded, yet scrappy and highly-effective third line of Ryan Carter-Stephen Gionta-Steve Bernier. At the moment, Carter is sidelined with a “head injury,” which general manager Lou Lamoriello classified as “day to day.”
That’s another thing. The Devils have a knack of plugging in players to fill a role better than the Rangers or the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins. Just look at Lamoriello’s deft trade with the Los Angeles Kings to pry high-ceiling playmaking forward Andrei Loktionov from the Kings for a fifth round draft pick. Loktionov went on to score the tying goal against the Capitals on Thursday and has the ability to play on a top line should he be required.
“He made some good plays. He gave us a real good contribution tonight. I didn’t know a lot about him,” Devils head coach Peter DeBoer admitted on Thursday.
If Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin were to miss significant time, there would be plenty of panic around Pittsburgh.
Let’s imagine a scenario where Kovalchuk goes down injured on the eve of the playoffs. I’d bet the Devils would figure out how to compensate for his loss better than any other team in the NHL, should their superstar suddenly be removed from the lineup.
That’s precisely why the Devils could beat out the Penguins to win the Atlantic Division — and further evidence of their capability to return to the Stanley Cup finals.