Streaking Kovalchuk starting to earn his money from Devils

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Take Ilya Kovalchuk’s statistics for the entire season and a fan might think he’s been an incredible disappointment. Chances are you wouldn’t have found much argument for the first three months of the season—especially not from Devils fans themselves. But going into tonight’s game against the equally hot Boston Bruins, the Devils (and Kovalchuk) are rapidly becoming the biggest story in the NHL.

The last two months have been something completely different for fans in the Garden State. Starting with a back-to-back against Tampa Bay on January 9th, New Jersey has looked like a completely different team. We’re talking polar opposites like if the Oilers woke up tomorrow morning and started playing like the Vancouver Canucks for the next couple of months. Everything has been different. Instead of watching the puck fill up their own net, the Devils have tightened up in their own zone and are playing the style of hockey that has made them one of the most successful teams over the last 15 years.

That small $100 million acquisition they made in the offseason? He’s starting to earn his way, as well.

Matthew Barnaby said over the weekend that Ilya Kovalchuk has been the best player in the entire league over the last two months. The key to his statement was that he’s been one of the league’s best “players,” not one of the league’s best “scorers.” Since Jacques Lemaire has taken the helm in New Jersey, Kovalchuk has been responsible in his own end and has cut down on the cherry-picking that would put his teammates at a disadvantage in their own zone. Obviously he’ll never been a Selke Trophy type player, but when he’s not a liability in the defensive zone the team thrives as a whole.

Kovalchuk’s dedication to being a more well-rounded player while keeping his explosiveness hasn’t gone unnoticed. Lemaire is certainly pleased to have him around:

“Kovy is a different player. Kovy can do a lot of things on his own. He’s got a knack for scoring and making plays. That’s why he’s getting so much money.”

The numbers back up the coach. Since the team has turned things around, Kovalchuk has been leading the charge offensively. During the Devils 18-2-2 stretch, the Russian has 12 goals, 12 assists, and owns a +12 rating. Not too bad considering he only had 10 goals, 21 points, and a -30 rating through the first 40 games of the season.

Everyone knows the Devils have been a completely different team—but it’s time to take notice that Kovalchuk has been a completely different player. He has 5 game-winning goals in the last 11 games; his 8 game-winning goals are 2nd in the league trailing only Alexander Ovechkin. Not too bad for a team that couldn’t win early in the season. When the Devils win, one of the major reasons is because Ilya Kovalchuk is scoring.

When the Devils are on their game, everyone knows they’ll play low-scoring contests and will have a very small margin for error. When they can get their superstar to score a point-per-game and hold the opposition to under 2 goals, they’re going to win quite a few games—like 18 out of 22. When a player is putting his team on his back, he’s a difference maker.

A $100 million difference maker.

Video: Stamkos lights up Leafs during first game in Toronto since re-signing with Bolts

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 15:  Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning takes a break during a off-day practice session prior to Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 15, 2016 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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For those Maple Leafs fans who once hoped Steven Stamkos would go to free agency and sign in Toronto, what transpired Tuesday will probably sting for a bit.

Playing in Toronto for the first time since he re-signed with the Lightning, opting not to test the open market and potentially signing with what is essentially his hometown team, Stamkos scored 1:19 into the contest, after getting sent in alone and beating goalie Frederik Andersen.


That one might hurt.

There was even a smattering of boos directed at Stamkos, who has never played a game for the Leafs, when he first touched the puck during Tuesday’s contest.

You’ll recall that last season, the Stamkos-to-Toronto speculation dominated headlines at times. A bit of a “circus,” indeed.

There were even ‘Sign Stamkos’ signs being handed out to fans prior to a game between the Lightning and Maple Leafs last season.

It’s official: Crosby makes season debut for Penguins

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 18:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the New York Rangers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 18, 2015 in New York City. The Penguins defeated the Rangers 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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All signs pointed to it happening earlier in the day, but it is now official: Sidney Crosby is making his 2016-17 debut on Tuesday night when the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Florida Panthers.

Crosby, the captain of the Penguins and the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner, missed the first six games of the season due to a concussion. He was injured during practice following the World Cup of Hockey where he led Canada to a championship. Given how much time he missed a few years ago with a concussion only missing six games a positive development for both him and the Penguins.

Crosby will open the game skating on the Penguins’ top line alongside wingers Patric Hornqvist and Scott Wilson.

Along with Crosby return to the lineup, goaltender Matt Murray is also in uniform for the Penguins for the first time this season and will serve as Marc-Andre Fleury‘s backup.

Murray, who took over the starting job in the playoffs last year when Fleury was sidelined at the start of the first round, was injured at the World Cup while playing for Team North America and has been sidelined since.

Even with the return of Crosby and Murray on Tuesday the Penguins are still missing a pretty significant player as defenseman Kris Letang remains sidelined with an upper body injury.

WATCH LIVE: Sabres at Flyers

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 11: Radko Gudas #3 of the Philadelphia Flyers and Jake McCabe #29 of the Buffalo Sabres fight in the third period at Wells Fargo Center on February 11, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers won 5-1.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The Buffalo Sabres visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday. This match-up features two teams off to slow starts and looking to work their way up the standings in their respective divisions.

You can check out the action on NBCSN or the NBC Sports’ Live Extra (7:30 pm ET).


Here are some links to check out for tonight’s game:

Flyers put Raffl (upper body) on IR

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Flyers; Ducks vs. Sharks

Bylsma: ‘We need to get more’ out of Reinhart

Flyers put Raffl (upper body) on IR

Philadelphia Flyers left wing Michael Raffl (12) maintains control of the puck against New York Rangers center Derick Brassard (16) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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After missing the last week with an upper-body ailment, Flyers forward Michael Raffl has been placed on injured reserve.

To fill his spot, the Flyers recalled Taylor Leier from AHL Lehigh Valley.

Raffl, 27, has appeared in three games this season, scoring once while averaging 12:21 TOI per night. He hasn’t suited up since a 7-4 loss to Chicago on Oct. 18, failing to suit up for Thursday’s loss to Anaheim, Saturday’s win over Carolina and yesterday’s 3-1 defeat in Montreal.

The Flyers are taking on Buffalo tonight (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Philly could make this IR designation retroactive to last Tuesday, which is when Raffl last played. It’s unclear how GM Ron Hextall will handle Raffl’s $2.35 million cap hit with regards to IR, but he’ll need to do some adjusting soon once injured defenseman Michael Del Zotto and forward Scott Laughton get back in the mix.