Ilya Kovalchuk knows what’s coming tonight when he plays at Philips Arena – this time as a member of the Devils.
A youth hockey group sat in one of the upper sections of the rink while the Devils participated in their morning skate in preparation for tonight’s game against the Thrashers. Many of the kids booed every time he touched the puck.
“They are practicing for tonight,” said Kovalchuk, who expects to be booed by his former home crowd.
That’s fine with the former Thrashers No. 1 overall pick and captain. He plays for the Devils now and that means a trip to the playoffs. The Thrashers are hanging on for a chance to make the playoffs for only the second time in the 10-year franchise history.
“It nice,” Kovalchuk said of the upcoming playoffs. “That’s why we play hockey, to win. You don’t want to finish every year and go play in the World Championships. I won twice. Now I want to win something different.
“Every day I feel better and better [about being in New Jersey]. I know the guys better. I know the coaching staff better. The whole organization. I feel like I’ve been here forever because we’ve got an unbelievable group of guys here. Everybody helps me with everything so I feel very comfortable.”
I asked Kovalchuk the difference between the two organizations. He was candid in his remarks. He referenced his comments following his trade when he said he was now playing for a “first-class organization.” Remarks the ruffled the feathers of some.
“There are a lot of different things,” Kovalchuk said. ” I can’t mention just one right now but it’s a little different organization. I know a lot of guys were [ticked] off when I said this was a first-class organization, but the difference between the two organizations – that’s winning. If you win on a consistent basis . … You don’t have to take it personally. You have to think about ourselves and make sure we do something better for the team next year.
“I didn’t mean anything personal. It’s just reality right now. [They Thrashers have] got so many young great players who can be really good, but you have to treat them right, train them right, teach them the game right and they are going to be successful. Like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington, they were last in the league and all of a sudden in a couple years they win the Cup or Presidents Trophy. That’s where they should look up to and try to do the same thing.”
Kovalchuk had dinner Monday night with his former Russian teammates, Slava Kozlov, Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov. He did not spend the night in his Atlanta house, but rather stayed in the team hotel. He said his mother and plenty of friends will be at the game. He will also get a chance to join his wife and children, including his new born son, in Florida following the game.
Kovalchuk questioned why the Thrashers are not playing Kozlov.
“I don’t know what is going on,” Kovalchuk said. “I think a guy like Kozzy, they need him real bad right now with his experience. I think the guy has played over 100 playoff games. Some personal reasons don’t have to go against the team. Especially now with all those injuries and he’s still not playing. I don’t think it’s right to treat guys like that. They did it to [Alexei] Zhitnik first, now Kozzy. He’s just too professional. You can’t say any bad word against him. They just sit him down and all the guys are disappointed too.”
Kovalchuk has said he will not negotiate a new contract until after the playoffs. Still, a smile comes to his face every time the word is mentioned.
“I know what my future is,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m going to go in the playoffs. That’s my closest future. I’m not a guy who thinks a couple years ahead. I take it one day at a time.”