It wasn't easy for the offensive superstar to sit out Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, not only because his presence in the lineup makes his team that much better, but also because he has waited a long time to have an impact in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
When No. 17 returned to action Thursday night for Game 3, Kovalchuk was determined to not just play but to make a difference, too.
Kovalchuk set up the Devils' first goal by Patrik Elias, scored in the second period, and then made a brilliant pass in overtime to Alexei Ponikarovsky, who scored the winning goal at 17:21 to give the Devils a 4-3 victory Thursday and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"I feel good," Kovalchuk said. "I was well-rested. Two days off is always good. Sometimes you've got to take one step back to make two steps forward. It was a little pressure, too. The guys played so well in Game 2 and you don't want to get back in the lineup just because you want to play. You want to fit in right away and play the way they did in Game 2, and I think we did that and we got a win."
The Devils won 4-1 in Philadelphia on Tuesday in Game 2 without Kovalchuk, and grabbed the series lead in their first home game of the series. New Jersey will also host Game 4 on Sunday and will look to take a commanding lead over its Atlantic Division rival.
If the game goes to overtime, the Devils might have an added edge again. Despite being short-handed twice in the extra period on Thursday, New Jersey improved to 3-1 in overtime in these playoffs. Four of the Devils' past five games have gone beyond regulation, including wins over Florida in Games 6 and 7 of the first round.
Kovalchuk was bothered by his undisclosed injury in the Florida series and in Game 1 against the Flyers. It was bad enough to force him to sit out one game, but he has since made a major recovery thanks to "a little magic" by the Devils' training staff.
"I feel a lot better compared to almost the whole first series and then the first game of the second series," he said. "I want to say thanks to all the trainers and doctors. They did a great job. Now, hopefully, I'm just going to move on and feel better every day."
The toughest part of the ordeal, outside of the pain, might have been Tuesday when he was home while his teammates were fighting things out in Philadelphia.
New Jersey trailed 1-0 in the series and in Game 2 before storming back and scoring four times in the third period for a 4-1 victory that tied things up.
Kovalchuk watched part of the game at home before taking a break to be with his daughter. When the tide turned in the Devils' favor while he was away from the TV, Kovalchuk didn't rush back to see what was happening in the game.
"I was in my house with my wife and a couple friends and I was so nervous," he said. "Then, I went to put my daughter in bed and I came back and (Adam) Larsson scored. So, I didn't watch a lot of hockey after that. Then, my wife told me that we won, and it was good.
"It was a little a good luck that I didn't sit in front of the TV, but I saw all the highlights and the end of the game. The guys did just unbelievable. The way they played set the tone for the rest of the series."
While he didn't have a hand in that one, Kovalchuk was the dominant player in Game 3.
Kovalchuk earned the second assist on Elias' power-play goal in the first period that tied it 1-1 at 12:33, just 6:25 after Brayden Schenn opened the scoring for Philadelphia on a power play.
Just 20 seconds after Elias tied it, Kovalchuk gave the Devils their first lead of the night when he zipped a shot past goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to make it 2-1. The goals were New Jersey's fastest in its playoff history.
"He is a world class player," Bryzgalov said. "He is very dangerous. He played hard. When the team needed him, he defended. He took advantage of his opportunities to shoot the puck. He is always dangerous. He is a great player."
And that was only part of the story.
Kovalchuk saved his best for the end when his brilliant vision of the ice caught the Flyers in a poor line change and ultimately produced the winning goal.
Kovalchuk saw a tired unit of Flyers head to the bench while the puck was still dangerously close to their end. He also saw Ponikarovsky coming onto the ice, and he hit him with a long pass into the Philadelphia end. Ponikarovsky skated in on Bryzgalov, and let go a shot that was stopped by the goalie. But the rebound came right back to him, and Ponikarovsky deftly switched to his backhand and put the puck in the net to end the game with his first career playoff overtime goal.
"Kovy's able to put a puck in a situation that people don't have a really good look at, because he cradles it in his stick and he is almost going away from the play," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "He has that great vision.
"From what I saw, he saw Poni come off the bench about 2 seconds before, and after that he never looked at him. He just turned around and fired the pass right on his stick. It's the type of skill that he has. It's fun to watch and a good thing to have on your team."
Kovalchuk has been looking to show off his skills on the NHL's biggest stage. He had never been on a team that won a postseason round until this year when the Devils knocked out Florida to set up this series with the Flyers.
Kovalchuk reached the playoffs once while with the former Atlanta Thrashers, but they were swept in the first round in 2007 by the New York Rangers—with Kovalchuk posting a goal and as assist in the four-game flameout. He was back in the postseason in 2010 after his trade to the Devils, but New Jersey was eliminated in five games by Philadelphia. Kovalchuk had two goals and four assists in that series.
Five weeks after rejecting Kovalchuk's 17-year, $102 million contract with the Devils because it violated the league's salary cap, the NHL approved a revised 15-year, $100 million deal in September 2010. But the Devils failed to qualify for the playoffs last year in Kovalchuk's first full season in New Jersey, the first time they missed the postseason since 1996.
Now he wants to lead his club on a deep run.
"He's one of the top players, so I think it's nice for him to be able to contribute." Brodeur said. "He's been waiting a long time to get in the playoff and have some success in the playoffs. For him to take a seat last game I'm sure he wasn't too thrilled about that, but it looked like it was for the best. He looked like he had a lot of jump today."
Zach Parise gave the Devils a 3-2 lead in the third period that was erased by Danny Briere at 11:04. Defenseman Matt Carle also scored for Philadelphia, lifting the Flyers into a 2-2 tie in the second.
NOTES: With Kovalchuk back in the lineup, New Jersey sat defenseman Peter Harrold, who had played in all nine previous playoff games. ... The previous Devils' record for two fastest playoff goals was 26 seconds by Petr Sykora and Bobby Holik on May 14, 2000, at Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals. That Devils team won the Stanley Cup. ... Flyers C Sean Couturier sustained an undisclosed lower body injury in the first period and didn't return