NEWARK, N.J. — No one plays more on the New Jersey Devils than Ilya Kovalchuk. It's pretty unusual for a forward to lead a team in ice time, but it's commonplace for the Russian star.
So when Kovalchuk is out, as he has been for two games and will be again Friday and Saturday night against the Washington Capitals, it represents a major shift in how the Devils do things.
"It's a hole to fill," New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said. "You fill it by committee. We've got to get two or three guys picking up that slack. We turn more into a four-line team than a three-line team."
That's not a misquote. DeBoer actually means that his team rolls four lines more consistently when Kovalchuk is not in the lineup — out of necessity.
While his teammates would love to have Kovalchuk around because of his natural scoring ability, it almost turns into the Patrick Ewing Effect — that for a short period of time a team can play better without its star because feels the need to make up for a big absence.
"Obviously it's a big piece missing. I think all that being said, guys are going to get more opportunity," forward Nick Palmieri said. "More guys need to step up in order to fill that void, even though a player like that it's hard to fill that void that he leaves when he's not in the lineup. But we just need kind of a more consistent team effort rather than relying on him to create more offense."
Kovalchuk has two goals and seven assists, second on the team. But the Devils don't lack for options, in the form of Patrik Elias (13 points) and Zach Parise (eight points).
The Caps understand that the Devils sans Kovalchuk are a bit of a different team. They might even present a bigger challenge.
"They will balance themselves more," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "And the team as a whole says, 'We've got to batten down the hatches a bit. We're short-handed.' They play stronger."
New Jersey was 2-0 this week without Kovalchuk going into Friday night's game against the Caps at Prudential Center, as it learns and adjusts to playing a different style.
"He brings another element to our team; he's one of our best players," center Adam Henrique said. "It's tough having him out of the lineup, but we can't change the way we play. We've just got to keep things simple, get on the forecheck, grind it out."
Vladimir Zharkov got the call from Albany of the American Hockey League to step into the lineup for the home-and-home with Washington. But no one's comparing him to Kovalchuk.
But for now, the Devils are taking Kovalchuk's lower-body injury carefully.
"We don't want to turn this into something that lingers," DeBoer said. "It's short-term pain for long-term gain."
And if the Devils play it right, not even pain because they find a way to win without Kovalchuk.
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