Ilya Kovalchuk waited a decade for his first taste of NHL playoff success, and he's not giving up his Stanley Cup dreams just because the Los Angeles Kings are making life tough for him.
The Russian superstar has no points and three shots in the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals. Not coincidentally, the New Jersey Devils are in an 0-2 hole with no offensive contributions from the NHL's leading scorer this postseason.
Kovalchuk made multiple turnovers and passed up a few shot opportunities in Game 2, yet most everybody agreed the $100 million forward was better than he was in the opener. He shared the blame for New Jersey's two straight one-goal performances when the Devils arrived on the West Coast on Sunday determined to turn around their slumbering offense in Game 3 on Monday night.
"Last game I played a little better, but I don't think any of us can say we played a good game, and personally I feel the same way," Kovalchuk said. "We all can be better, and we will be. I really believe so. We really care about each other, and that's what's going to make us better — the team. Not one guy, not two guys, all of us have to stick together and grow as a team."
Kovalchuk still could have won Game 2 if his point-blank shot hadn't hit Jonathan Quick's crossbar in the waning seconds after a turnover by Kings captain Dustin Brown left him alone with the puck in the slot. Kovalchuk was a bit rushed, and he barely missed a shot he has made countless times while scoring 758 points in his 10-season NHL career with Atlanta and New Jersey.
If Kovalchuk was ruminating on that near-miss, he sure didn't let it slip.
"Sometimes it takes just a little bounce their way," he said. "We got some really good chances in overtime, and I got a really good chance right before the third period ends."
Kovalchuk had never been past the first round of the postseason before, but he's quite familiar with defenses focusing their attention on him. That's been the case ever since he joined the Thrashers as the top overall pick in 2001.
Drew Doughty and defensive partner Rob Scuderi have drawn much of the responsibility to shut down Kovalchuk, but Los Angeles' entire defense has done a solid job. The Kings' penalty-killing has been impeccable throughout the postseason, and Kovalchuk is particularly frustrated to see his Devils' struggles on the power play.
"I think 5-on-5 and short-handed, we played really well, (but) the power play has got to be better," Kovalchuk said. "We've got to be simple. We tried to do too much. We try to make the pass to five guys, four guys. It's not going to happen."
Kovalchuk thinks New Jersey must raise every aspect of its game if the Devils are to keep up. He'll also need help from fellow scoreless stars Zach Parise and Travis Zajac.
Parise rejected the notion he shares a particular responsibility with Kovalchuk to shoulder the Devils' scoring load.
"We've gotten here as a committee," said Parise, who has 14 postseason points after scoring 69 in the regular season. "Hasn't been with one or two guys that have carried us through. We've done this with four lines. I think everyone feels it upon themselves. We need to be better to generate some more offense."
New Jersey has been Los Angeles' toughest opponent in the postseason so far, with superb forechecking that has prevented the Kings from playing the same smooth puck-possession game they've demonstrated for nearly two months. But with almost no goals to show for it, the Devils can't be satisfied.
The Devils' offensive frustration is a familiar feeling, and that's why they're confident they can get rid of it. Unlike the Kings, who have steamrolled every opponent so far in their 14-2 playoff run, New Jersey lost two of the first three games in both its first-round series with Florida and the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers.
New York even shut out the Devils in the first and third games of the series, raising another round of worries about New Jersey's scoring. The Devils ricocheted back with 12 goals in the final three games to close out the series.
"Same thing happened in the Rangers series," Zajac said. "We just stuck with it. We believed in ourselves, found a way to get it done. Eventually that series tilted in our favor. If we can do the same thing tomorrow night, worry about tomorrow night's game, get a win tomorrow, I think that would definitely help us."
Yet the Devils are at least a bit concerned. Coach Peter DeBoer took a risk and shuffled his lines for the third period of Game 2 in an effort to generate more scoring chances, but DeBoer realizes how easily New Jersey could be in control of this series with just a couple of goals.
"You have two 2-1 overtime games," DeBoer said. "Shots are relatively even. Scoring chances are relatively even through two games. I mean, we could be in a different situation. We're not. You have to give L.A. credit for finding a way to win those two games. We know we can play with them, and we feel we have another level to go to here."
Kovalchuk has been around long enough to know what he needs to do to escape a scoring slump. He had already watched tape of his first two performances against the Kings, observing moments of indecision and overthinking on the biggest stage of his career outside the Olympics.
"Yeah, (there were a) couple (of times) maybe I should have shot that I passed the puck," Kovalchuk said. "But we created some chances. We give the puck to our D, create traffic in front of them, and that's how we score goals. Sometimes we've got to be more selfish and take that shot."