This is the Ilya Kovalchuk we expected to see.
The New Jersey Devils' left-winger, the prized acquisition for the franchise this offseason, finally resembles the scorer worth his $100 million contract. It's no surprise that as he's improved, the offense improved around him. He's moved out of the constant scrutiny of the media and become the darling of Devils' fans. And to think - only two months ago, Kovalchuk bore the brunt of the Devils failures.
During the first half of the season, Kovalchuk looked lost. He couldn't score, couldn't get past a defender. Coach John MacLean shifted him throughout the lineup, looking for some combination to get him going. Nothing worked. While there were bright spots, including game-winning goals against the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers, it was a dim start to a lengthy contract.
His problems came to a head on November 10, when Kovalchuk lost the puck during a shootout. He was booed on home ice, the lowest point of his season complete.
Leave it to Mr. Miracles, Jacques Lemaire, to fix Kovalchuk.
Lemaire's arrival completely turned around Kovalchuk's season. The left winger has 13 goals, 11 assists and is a plus-2 since Lemaire took over on December 23. He looks faster, has found his shot and flashed his creativity in the offensive zone. It's not only his offensive game that's improved.
Kovalchuk, often criticized for his defense, is silently becoming a decent two-way forward. Will he win the Selke? No, probably not. But Kovalchuk has become responsible in his own zone and exerts effort in the defensive end. He's shown a willingness to fix that weakness, and Lemaire helped him discover that part of his game.
Kovalchuk isn't the sole reason for the team's turnaround, but he's certainly a big piece. He's scored seven game-winning goals this season, placing him near the league leaders. He's currently riding an 11-game point streak, the longest of his career. He brought his abysmal minus-27 rating down to a minus-20.
While Kovalchuk isn't the sole reason behind the Devils 16-1-2 run, he's been a valuable part of the puzzle. Finally, the organization has its $100 million scorer.
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