NEWARK -- It took Ilya Kovalchuk 10 seasons to get past the first round of the NHL playoffs, making him determined to make the most of the Devils' long run this spring. That he has.
The highlight so far came Friday night, when he contributed a goal in regulation and an assist in overtime as the Devils ousted the Rangers, 3-2, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final.
Kovalchuk was in the middle of the action, finishing with a game-high six shots on goal in nearly 21 minutes of ice time.
"It feels good,'' he said in the raucous winning locker room. "It's a big event. I think it's the biggest event I've ever been in in my NHL career so far. I'm just going to enjoy it.''
Up next are the Kings, the other team he considered as a free agent before signing a 15-year, $100-million contract with the Devils before last season. That hefty contract signifies that Kovalchuk is one of the league's most dangerous scorers, as evidenced by his seven goals in these playoffs, including a blast past Henrik Lundqvist on a first-period power play Friday.
Kovalchuk celebrated more lustily than usual after that one. "That's what happens,'' he said. "Emotions are high and that's where you want to get the crowd going. It was a big goal.''
But what happened in overtime was more illustrative of the star's varied role.
First, remember his contribution to the biggest goal of Game 5, when he set up Ryan Carter's game-winner by riding Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto into the boards deep in the corner, allowing the puck to squirt out to Stephen Gionta, who fed Carter in front.
"It's all those little plays that make a big difference,'' Kovalchuk said after Friday's morning skate. "I was fortunate I ended up in that situation and I just did exactly what anybody else would do.''
Then came overtime on Friday. Kovalchuk did not get the winning goal. But he was in the middle of the scrum in front of Lundqvist, twice poking at the puck after a shot by Alexi Ponikarovsky before it finally found its way to Adam Henrique for the game-winner.
"The puck was laying right there,'' Kovalchuk said. "I got a couple of shots on it. I just poked it. But we never gave up on that play and we scored the goal. It's nice.''
Last season, with the Devils failing to qualify for the playoffs and Kovalchuk adjusting to a new environment, he was criticized by some for not being a team player. His coach begs to differ.
"I said from Day One he's been all in, team first, great teammate," Peter DeBoer said. " . . . we wouldn't be here without him.''