NEWARK, N.J. -- It was a very happy belated birthday for Ilya Kovalchuk. Not only did the 27-year-old (and one day) New Jersey Devils winger pick up his first goal of the series -- an empty-netter with 32.9 seconds left Friday night -- he experienced the first playoff win of his career. That, he says, was much sweeter. "Oh yeah, I don't care about goals," he said after the Devils defeated the Flyers, 5-3, to tie up the series at one game apiece. "It was great to win."
That was the whole idea behind Kovalchuk's arrival to the Devils in January. The former Atlanta Thrashers franchise player was looking for a place where winning -- and winning deep into the springtime -- would be a possibility. In seven seasons, the gifted winger had only the slightest glimpse of playoff hockey. In 2007, his Thrashers were swiftly swept by the Rangers in the first round; in those four games, he had just one goal and one assist. On Friday, he bettered that mark with a goal and two assists. It was a slight relief to see Kovalchuk contribute -- his fancy game of keep-away at the blueline during the power play set up Andy Greene's go-ahead goal in the second period -- but his playoff innocence also almost cost the Devils the game.
Surely, he's heard about how the game is ratcheted up during the playoffs (who hasn't?), how it becomes more physical, more intense, more everything. But taking three penalties, including a two-minute minor for tussling with Flyer Darroll Powe (uh, not exactly a minutes-eater), put New Jersey on its heels. In all, the Devils reported to the box nine times, uncharacteristic for a team that averaged 1.66 minor penalties per game during the regular season, a league low. They've only had more penalty minutes in a game 10 times this season, and earlier this month, played the first penalty-less game in nine years. But give the Flyers more than 10 minutes on the power play, the NHL's third-best with a 21.5 percent success rate during the regular season, and Neww Jersey might as well invite Philadelphia to get back into a game.
"I like Kovy," coach Jacques Lemaire prefaced, "but to me, he lacks experience in the playoffs. That's all he's missing. There's certain things you've got to watch for. You can't get tangled with a guy that plays 10 minutes [Powe], and get out for two [minutes]; not when you're one of the top players. So you've got to stay away from that." There has been progress with Kovalchuk, who admitted he's an emotional guy and maybe shouldn't have gotten into it with Powe, but there is still plenty of room to grow.
• Aside from the calls on Kovalchuk, which were pretty obvious, there were others that didn't seem quite so clear-cut. "I thought we had some unfortunate calls against us," Zach Parise said. When asked what he thought about the penalties against the Devils, Lemaire paused and pondered how best to address the issue. "I can't talk about it," he said. "I would love to, but I can't talk about it. Thank you."
• New Jersey went 0-for-5 on the power play in Game 1, and didn't score until 57 minutes into the game Wednesday night -- a Travis Zajac tally late in third. So why wouldn't they go and score a short-handed goal just under three minutes into Game 2? When Flyers defenseman Matt Carle skated through a pass back to the point, he created a quick opportunity for New Jersey. Picking it up at center ice, Patrik Elias found a streaking Parise, who flipped it up past Philadelphia goalie Brian Boucher.
• It seems a little symbolic that nobody really knows who scored the game-winner Friday night. An organization that is known for its team-first, individuals-second mentality, it seems only fitting that Dainius Zubrus and Parise scored in concert with each other. Zubrus got the official credit, though many (including some up in the press box) thought Parise put it in. Still, in true Devils fashion, nobody in the room really cared.