Penguins Notebook: Kovalchuk's versatility pays off for Devils
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NEWARK, N.J. -- It used to be all about the numbers with Ilya Kovalchuk.
Well, some of the numbers, anyway.
Mostly, goals. To some extent, assists.
Plus-minus? Uh, not really.
But Kovalchuk, a New Jersey winger who scored one goal and set up two others in the Devils' 5-2 victory against the Penguins Sunday at Prudential Center, is a different player these days.
He still generates some pretty nice offensive statistics -- 22 goals and 28 assists in 47 games -- but Kovalchuk seems to have a genuine appreciation for the value of working all over the ice.
His minus-6 hardly is gaudy, but he's responsible enough that he is used in just about every conceivable game situation, including penalty-killing.
The transformation in his game can be traced to former Devils coach Jacques Lemaire, who stressed the importance of being a two-way player and showed confidence in Kovalchuk by deploying him in defensive situations during their time together a season ago.
Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis, who was Kovalchuk's teammate in Atlanta, has noticed the difference.
"He's trying to [be more complete]," Dupuis said. "The kind of team he had before [in Atlanta], I think it was easy for him to cheat. All they wanted from him was offense.
"But now, as you get older, it's not only goals and points that count. These guys, I think they want to win. He's the kind of guy who wants to win, too, and I think he's putting the effort toward the details of his game that he thinks are going to help his team win."
Even though Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins stopped just nine of the 12 shots Sunday that New Jersey threw at him, there hasn't been a goaltender more adept at stopping pucks lately.
And there probably aren't many, if any, who can be worse at handling them.
A puckhandling gaffe by Fleury led to a New Jersey goal just 2:21 into the opening period, and that set the tone for the rest of the game.
Fleury ventured behind his net to play the puck, but lost it to Devils forward Patrik Elias.
"I just wanted to stop it, and it bounced over my blade," Fleury said.
Elias managed to keep it on his. At least until he fed it to Kovalchuk, who steered a shot between Fleury's legs for a lead the Devils never surrendered.
Fleury has had puckhandling issues throughout his career, including several this season.
Nonetheless, coach Dan Bylsma believes that facet of his game has been upgraded significantly.
"It's an area of his game that, I think, is much improved from where it was a couple of years ago," Bylsma said. "But he made a mistake early on that allowed them a forechecking opportunity that gives them a lead."
The empty-netter David Clarkson of New Jersey scored with 46.7 seconds left didn't have much of an impact on the game, but might have been the most memorable goal of his career.
That's because it was his 20th of the season, the first time he has reached that milestone.
And it gave him about 18 more in 2011-12 than a lot of people expected him to score in his career.
When Clarkson, 27, broke into the NHL as an undrafted free agent in the 2006-07 season, he was an undersized tough guy whose tenure in the league figured to be measured in months, if not minutes.
Today, he is tied with Zach Parise for second place on the Devils' goal-scoring list, trailing only Kovalchuk.
"He basically fought his way into the league the first two years," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said.
"Everyone knew he had some skills, but at his size [6 feet 1, 200 pounds], to go out and do what he did the first two or three years of his career -- fighting guys 30 or 40 pounds heavier than he is to stay in the league. ... You have a lot of time for guys who are willing to do whatever it takes to get to this level."
Clarkson already has set a personal-best for goals, and looks to be capable of remaining an integral part of New Jersey's offense for years to come.
"He's a veteran guy now who has some years under his belt," DeBoer said. "And is getting rewarded for the room he has created for himself by doing what he did earlier in his career."
First Published February 6, 2012 12:00 am