NEWARK - Ilya Kovalchuk isn’t likely to morph into a Selke Trophy candidate as the NHL’s top defensive forward. Nor is that why his pay jumps to $11 million next season, the second year of his contract extension with the Devils.
But the highly skilled Russian winger, one of the game’s superior marksmen, does seem to be grasping the idea of “Devils hockey,’’ an overall defensive game that was the essence of the franchise’s three Stanley Cup championships minted long before Kovalchuk was traded from Atlanta.
Martin Brodeur, the superb netminder whose name is on each of those championships, said yesterday that Kovalchuk has the chance to “open some eyes’’ with his growing commitment to two-way hockey.
“Now he’s being asked to do more than score goals,’’ noted Brodeur, who was in net last night when his Devils took on the Bruins. “And I think he’s embracing it.’’
Ditto for new Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who saw plenty of Kovalchuk in the years he coached the Florida Panthers and Kovalchuk was posting big goal totals for the Thrashers. DeBoer has been sufficiently impressed by Kovalchuk’s overall work ethic and game demeanor, to the point that he often employs him on the penalty-killing unit.
“Penalty killing is about having a defense-first mentality,’’ DeBoer said. “You have no choice but to think that way when you’re out there in that situation.’’
Kovalchuk’s numbers have been modest, especially given the ballyhoo surrounding his acquisition and the $100 million contract he signed prior to last season. He has 19 goals and 40 points in 41 games.
Point-per-game players are rare in today’s NHL, but Kovalchuk, who hammered home 52 goals in two of his eight seasons with Atlanta, is expected to deliver at least that pace - part of what DeBoer is referring to when he mentions “the burden he carries.’’
For the second time in the two games this month against the Bruins, Kovalchuk was a nonfactor. He logged a beefy 23:06 last night and landed but a single shot on net. He also finished a minus-1.
Meanwhile, Boston’s fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, and Shawn Thornton cobbled together a 1-4-5 line in a cumulative 33:00.
Kovalchuk’s critics, DeBoer figures, may never be satisfied with what he does on the ice.
“Probably not,’’ said the coach. “But I don’t think he cares. I know I don’t.’’
Dip in power
The Bruins had only one power play and connected with it, Nathan Horton popping in the go-ahead goal at 7:10 off a David Krejci feed. Staying out of the penalty box was high on the Devils’ to-do list, and the one time they were burned proved very costly. The Boston power play has been a bit ragged of late. They connected only once on the man-advantage in a total of five tries against the Panthers and Lightning at the start of this week and are now 3 for 23 in their last seven games. As Christmas approached, the power play showed some real jump, going an impressive 8 for 25 over a six-game stretch. The improvement jiggled the Bruins up near the top of the pack, ranking in the 6-8 range among the league’s 30 clubs. As of yesterday, however, they had slipped back to 21st, having connected on only 15.4 percent. Boston’s penalty killing has been strong all season. With another kill last night, they have killed 81 of their 93 shorthanded situations, good for 87.1 percent, sixth in the league.
Blue line blues
Perhaps Andrew Ference’s goal, good for the 1-1 equalizer, will prove to be the one that gets some pop out of the back end for the Bruins. The Boston back line provided 10 shots for the night, with both Ference and Zdeno Chara landing three apiece on net. Two of the club’s most active shooters, Chara and Joe Corvo, are in protracted droughts. Chara, with a team-high 123 shots on net, has not scored since Dec. 17 (13 games). Corvo has 103 shots but has not scored since connecting twice against Columbus Dec. 10. He is 0-5-5 in his last 16 games. Chara and Corvo have combined for nine goals this season. The rest of the blue liners also have a total of nine, but as a group they shoot considerably less.
Strangers no longer
The Bruins dashed home after the game and will take on the Rangers tomorrow in a 1 p.m. matinee at TD Garden. It is Boston’s first look this season at the Eastern Conference-leading Broadway Blueshirts . . . The Devils face the Flyers tomorrow at the Rock, and the Bruins will be in Philadelphia for a matinee Sunday . . . The only other game on Causeway Street this month is a Jan. 31 visit by the Senators, the same day that Tyler Seguin turns a grizzled 20 years old.