Kovalchuk scored with 3:59 to play for his second game-winning goal in as many nights and the New Jersey Devils won the matchup of the NHL’s hottest teams with a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Friday night.
“I’ve seen it before,” said Devils goaltender Johan Hedberg, who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta. “This is the fifth year I’ve been with him. He’s an elite player in the world. Like everybody else, he had a slower start than he wanted. You can tell he’s stepped it up a couple of notches. He’s playing a complete hockey game all over the ice and he’s scoring the big goals.”
The turnaround has coincided with the late-December coaching change that saw Jacques Lemaire replace John MacLean.
Kovalchuk not only has developed his two-way game under Lemaire, he has rediscovered his scoring touch, tallying 11 of his 19 goals since the switch.
“We’re all playing better,” said Kovalchuk, who has nine goals in the Devils’ current 12-1-2 spurt that has kindled playoffs hopes. “It seems like we never stop battling. That’s character. That’s when you feel comfortable to play confident with the puck and without it and we get the bounces. We didn’t feel that in the first 30 games, that’s for sure.”