The most obvious reason the New Jersey Devils pulled up lame in the NHL playoff race is back home skating on his own while the rest of the team is in Toronto preparing for Monday night’s game against the Maple Leafs.
Ever since Ilya Kovalchuk was lost to a right shoulder injury on Mar. 23, the Devils have not won a game, falling six points out of the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Without the catalyst for their offence, the Devils are 0-5-4 in their last nine games.
Adding extra hurt to this was that three of those losses came in shootouts, where the flashy Kovalchuk shines. Kovalchuk’s 27 points in 32 games did not lead the team when he was injured (Patrick Elias was the top points man then and remains so now) but the winger is clearly the key to the Devils’ offence. In the nine games without Kovalchuk on his line, Elias has one goal and one assist.
The only other player who has that much influence on the Devils is goaltender Martin Brodeur, who will start Monday against the Maple Leafs. When Brodeur was out of action from Feb. 23 to Mar. 19 with a pinched nerve, the Devils went 3-8-2.
In the 32 games with Kovalchuk in the lineup, the Devils scored 2.50 goals per game. In the nine games since, their average production dropped to 1.77 goals per game. They were shut out twice in those nine games, the latest coming Friday night when the Devils lost 2-0 to the Senators despite out-shooting them 33-11.
Head coach Pete DeBoer said at the Devils’ game-day skate that Kovalchuk’s status is now day-to-day but there is no timeline for his return. But with just seven games left in their regular season and six points to make up on the eighth-place New York Rangers, it probably doesn’t matter.
“I try not to,” DeBoer said when asked if he monitors the NHL standings closely. “But you always have an eye on the standings. I’m more interested in getting us the win [against the Leafs].”
Kovalchuk was replaced on the Devils’ top line of centre Travis Zajac and Elias by veteran Steve Sullivan, who was acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes at the NHL trade deadline 12 days ago. But in four games Sullivan has managed just two points.
The Devils will also be without defenceman Bryce Salvador for Monday night’s game. He will miss his second game with a wrist injury. Backup goaltender Johan Hedberg returns to the lineup after missing the last six days with a groin injury.