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.

Vasilevskiy shines again as Lightning take top spot in NHL

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Tuesday’s game in St. Louis was a showdown featuring the top two teams in the NHL.

In the end it was the Lightning picking up the 3-0 win to extend their current winning streak to five games and to reclaim sole possession of the No. 1 spot in the NHL.

Their win improves them to 22-6-2 on the season and puts them two points ahead of the Blues despite having played two fewer games.

It was another impressive showing for Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who has been one of the underrated stars of this year’s Lightning team. Most of the attention has been directed to forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (and deservedly so!) but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Vasilevskiy, in his first full season as the Lighting’s full-time starter, has been one of the best goalies in the league so far.

Tuesday’s game was his third shutout of the season, and after his 32-save performance against the Blues his .933 save percentage is among the best in the NHL, while his 20 wins (in only 25 starts) are tops in the league. Nobody else in the league has more than 17.

While Vasilevskiy was shining in net again, Kucherov scored his 21st goal of the season to move back into a tie with Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the league. It was also his 42nd point which moved him into a tie with Stamkos for the league lead.

Brayden Point also continued his breakout season by opening the scoring with his 13th goal of the season. He also added an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s third period goal.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

John Tortorella had no time for questions after blowout loss (Video)

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Since being hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets John Tortorella has seemed to be a kinder, gentler coach.

The blow ups and battles with the media don’t seem to happen as much. We don’t get as many rants.

He just does not seem as angry all the time.

Losing 7-2 at home to the Edmonton Oilers, however, might change a few things.

That it was happened to the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night and Tortorella was in no mood to answer question about the game.

His press conference consisted of him stepping to the podium, saying there is no point in answering questions about the game, then leaving.

Here it is in all of its glory.

The only question we have: Is this shorter than the night he said the New York Rangers “sucked from head to toe?”

(Oddly enough, that game was also against the Edmonton Oilers).

That press conference lasted, roughly, 14 seconds from the time he started talking until the time he walked away (and also included the line “I know you have a job to do”).

Tonight’s comes in at just around 12 seconds. So we might have a record for the shortest John Tortorella press conference of all time.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski dies at 49

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski has died at age 49, according to the Calgary Flames. No cause of death was given.

Zalapski, a native of Edmonton, played 637 NHL games for Calgary, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal and Philadelphia from 1987 to 2000.

He was with the Flames from 1993 to 1998.

“We are proud that Zarley wore the Flames jersey, made Calgary his home following his playing career, represented our alumni executive and we will always remember him as a member of the Flames family,” Flames president and chief executive officer Ken King said Tuesday in a statement.

“This is a terrible loss of a man with great character who truly loved the game of hockey. We express our sincere condolences to the Zalapski family.”

Zalapski was a member of the Canadian team that finished fourth in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

He had 99 goals, 285 assists and 684 penalty minutes in the NHL. Zalapski was named to the all-rookie team in 1989 and participated in the NHL All-Star Game in 1993.

Zalapski played stints in Austria and Switzerland after his NHL career and appeared in 11 games for the United Hockey League’s Kalamazoo Wings in 2004-05.

He was the fourth overall pick by the Penguins in the 1986 entry draft.

Taylor Hall puts on a show as Devils end Kings’ winning streak

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The New Jersey Devils put an end to the Los Angeles Kings’ eight-game winning streak on Tuesday night with a rather convincing 5-1 win.

The Devils dominated in pretty much every aspect of the game, limiting the Kings to just 17 shots on goal and scoring five goals against a team that had not allowed more than two goals (and never more than three) during its winning streak.

The star of the game for the Devils was most certainly forward Taylor Hall.

Hall continued what could be a career year with a pair of goals, including this highlight reel play in the second period that saw him force a turnover, split through the Kings’ defense (including Drew Doughty!), then beat Jonathan Quick with a backhander.

With that performance on Tuesday Hall is now up to 11 goals and 31 total points on the season.

His first year with the Devils wasn’t quite what he or the team wanted, but he has bounced back in a big way this season. His performance, along with the development of young players Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, and Jesper Bratt have the Devils back on track to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.