After Ilya Kovalchuk was seen wincing and flexing his shoulder Sunday, there were some questions as to whether Kovalchuk was healthy enough to play now that the Devils have been eliminated from the postseason. Lou Lamoriello put those questions to rest Monday.
GM Lou Lamoriello says Ilya Kovalchuk is healthy now and will play the Devils' remaining 3 games.— Rich Chere (@Ledger_NJDevils) April 22, 2013
I’ve said all I need to say about this. If he’s healthy, then play him. If he’s not, well, you know.
The Devils were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention Sunday afternoon. On Monday, Pete DeBoer was asked if he thought the Devils “deserved” to make the playoffs.
DeBoer said he's coached teams in past that missed playoffs & didn't "deserve" to make it, but didn't think that's the case with this team.— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) April 22, 2013
He doesn’t come out and say the phrase “we deserved to make the playoffs,” but it’s pretty easy to read his meaning. I’ve never been a fan of players, coaches or fans talking about what was deserved or what should’ve happened. The fact is the Devils didn’t make the playoffs. Obviously, injuries to Martin Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk played a big part in that. The two missed nearly two months combined — a brutal thing to handle in a regular season, let alone a shortened one. However, this team was built poorly to begin with and both Lou Lamoriello and DeBoer mismanaged it at different points of the season. From the Stefan Matteau situation to not signing a veteran scorer before the season began, there were multiple missteps from a roster point of view. Would the Devils have made the playoffs in an 82-game season? Maybe. Maybe they would’ve overcome the injury issues and had more time to find some secondary scoring, but there’s always the possibility the Flyers and Hurricanes would’ve had time to turn it around. There’s no “deserve” when it comes to qualifying for the postseason. We saw 45 games worth of hockey from this Devils team in a 48-game season and they simply weren’t good enough.
A lifeless start, a couple of bad penalty calls and suddenly the Devils were frustrated, losing and on their way to playoff elimination. All in all, a sad but fitting end (as far as playoff chances go) to a season that was flawed from the get-go. Some thoughts…
Two things: When you combine a lack or energy with some questionable officiating, you usually get one of two results. Sometimes the team will take on an “us against the world” mentality, snap out of their funk and go on a tear the rest of the game. That didn’t happen today. Instead, the Devils went further into their shell and seemingly quit on the game and essentially their season. Even Martin Brodeur admitted that he felt his teammates gave up when things didn’t go their way. The Devils basically mailed in the first period, negating to forecheck or apply any sort of offensive pressure on the Rangers. It was almost like the Devils came out assuming they were already eliminated from the playoffs. While it was a mathematical eventuality, it’s still disconcerting to hear players after the game talk about how they knew it was just a matter of time. When you hear stuff like that, you can understand why you get a first period like the Devils had today.
If you didn’t watch the first 10 minutes of today’s game, you’d think it was one of the Devils’ best efforts all season. Despite that (very) sub-par start, the Devils once again managed to “turn it on” after Pete DeBoer’s timeout and just dominated the Panthers for the next 50 minutes. Some thoughts…
Wake-up call: The Pete DeBoer First Period Timeout should be sold in pharmacies across the country. It’s best wake-up call I think I’ve ever seen. Why the Devils continue to need it — especially in the throes of a desperate playoff chase — is beyond me, but it certainly is the magical elixir this roster covets. The Devils came out painfully slow and were lacking any sort of energy. The Panthers were skating circles around them, getting to every loose puck. Both of Florida’s goals were a result of out-efforting New Jersey, but that changed as soon as DeBoer called his infamous timeout. You could see him rotating his hand, signaling the Devils needed to pick up the energy. This wasn’t one of those “settle down” timeouts. This was the “well-time expletive” version and it worked. Boy did it work. It took a few minutes but before long New Jersey was all over Florida, like a train that takes time to build up speed and then all of sudden is barreling down the tracks at 80 miles per hour. I know I’ve spent some time cracking on the Devils for their slow starts this season and their reliance on the P.D.F.P.T. (we might need a better acronym), but at this point, a win is a win is a win.
The Devils are long shots to make the playoffs. This isn’t new. Neither is Ilya Kovalchuk’s ailing shoulder, which has sidelined him since March 23. There’s a school of thought (championed here) that it might be best to rest Kovalchuk for the rest of the season to avoid long-term damage. Except Pete DeBoer and Kovalchuk have absolutely no interest in anything resembling a shutdown.
Although he practiced today on the fifth line with Andrei Loktionov, Krys Barch and Tom Kostopoulos and remained on the ice for extra work afterward, he sounded optimistic that he could be back playing soon.
“I felt the best so far that I felt,” Kovalchuk said. “I feel pretty confident. I took a couple of one-timers and a little bit of contact, so it’s good.”
With the Devils’ playoff hopes on life support – they are six points out of a playoff spot with only five games remaining – Kovalchuk would love to come back and help the team. But he also said that he wants to come back and play even if the team is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention and has no interest in shutting down for the season.
“I want to get back as soon as I can, definitely” he said. “I don’t care if we will be mathematically out or not. We’re all professionals. The fans deserve to see the best effort and we will fight to the last second of the last game anyway whatever happens. So, it’s not even in my mind to sit out the (rest of) year. I’m already bored as hell. It’s been almost four weeks skating here by myself every day and you can tell it’s not too much fun, so you want to get back as soon as you can.”
Neither Kovy nor DeBoer would say whether they expect him in the lineup Saturday afternoon, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t play in at least one of the weekend games given his rapid improvement. Remember, only two days ago, Kovy seemed visibly frustrated with the lack of progress in his shoulder. The fact that he was able to take a pain-free one-timer during practice today is a big boost to his confidence and also DeBoer’s confidence in putting him in without worrying about Kovy suffering a worse injury.
That said, I’m still very wary of putting him in these final five games. I get the whole “professional” angle and I admire that he’s at least speaking with the fans/ticket buyers in mind. That’ll go a long way toward winning him points with the fan base. However, you have to wonder if the rapid improvement has anything to do with the Devils suddenly getting a win and not being out of it. Athletes, particularly elite ones like Kovalchuk, feel they’re the difference. They feel like if they’re in the lineup, everything changes — even in a team game like hockey. I’ll bet you Kovy feels like if he hadn’t missed this time the Devils would be in the playoff picture instead of staring up at it. So at some point, you have to protect the player from himself.
The math is against the Devils, but it hasn’t eliminated them yet, so from that point of view I get the idea that you want him back. I get the alluring visual that is an 80-percent or 90-percent version of your best player back on the ice for the final stretch. But is it really worth it if he tears a labrum? Or aggravates whatever injury he’s already dealing with? Why? For a couple extra points or goals at the end of the year? If I’m wrong and his return spurs them into the playoffs and he stays as healthy as possible, I’ll admit it. But I’m just saying the cost-benefit angle needs to be part of this discussion.
As expected, Ilya Kovalchuk practiced with the Devils again Wednesday. After the session, Kovalchuk told reporters that he thought he could play tomorrow against the Flyers and that he would be traveling with the team. Pete DeBoer, however, disagreed with Kovy’s sentiment.
DeBoer said plan was for Kovalchuk to go to Philadelphia, but after talking to him following today's practice, decided he's not ready.— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) April 17, 2013
When I asked if it was possible they'd shut down Kovlachuk, DeBoer said they're still going day to day and look at Saturday's game next.— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) April 17, 2013
I’m not sure the benefit of dragging this out and to be honest, I’m getting tired of writing the same thing over and over. There’s no reason for Kovalchuk to play this season. Absolutely none. If he does return, especially at less than 100 percent, the Devils are just tempting fate. If they string this out day by day, they’re just wasting people’s time. But I’m not Pete DeBoer. I’m not Ilya Kovalchuk. I’m not Lou Lamoriello. I’ll let them make the decision, even if it is a poor one.