Kings, Devils Set For Stanley Cup Finals 2 Years After Ilya Kovalchuk Battle

May 25, 2012; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (17) celebrates his goal during the first period in game six of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals at the Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

It's been two years since the Devils and Kings battled for free agent Ilya Kovalchuk's services. Now, New Jersey will try to beat L.A. with No. 17's help.

There has not been any kind of shortage of story lines during the 2012 postseason, and the Stanley Cup Final is no exception. Mike Richards playing against his old junior coach from the OHL's Kitchen Rangers, Peter DeBoer. Wayne Gretzky, who played for the Los Angeles Kings during the last time they qualified for the Final in 1993 and has said he will be present during the 2012 Final, once called the New Jersey Devils a "Mickey Mouse organization" back in the late-1980's.

But there is another.

It seems all too coincidental the two teams that competed the hardest for the services of free agent Ilya Kovalchuk during the summer of 2010 are set to face off against each other Wednesday night at Prudential Center in Game 1 of the series that will determine the NHL champions.

After being dealt by the then-Atlanta Thrashers to New Jersey for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Mattias Tedenby, and a first-round draft choice prior to the trade deadline in February of 2010 when it was obvious the Thrashers would not be able to re-sign the star player, Kovalchuk posted a point-per-game (10 goals, 27 points in 27 games) along with a +9 rating down the stretch. He then recorded two goals and six points in a five-game first round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that spring.


Dirk Hoag on the Stanley Cup Finals

If you will recall, Kings' GM Dean Lombardi had brought Kovalchuk and his camp out to L.A. on a couple of occasions in hopes of wooing the sniper to Tinsel Town, but to no avail.

Lou Lamoriello and the Devils saw enough in his play that they wanted to bring the unrestricted free agent back, and were deemed the "winners" when they inked Kovalchuk to a monster 17-year, $102 million contract in mid-July of 2010.

But things quickly spiraled downward for the club shortly thereafter. Following an NHL investigation determined the pact was an attempt to circumvent the salary cap -- and even though a deal was reworked as a 15-year, $100 million contract in the interim -- the Devils were fined $3 million and penalized two draft picks.

Compounding matters was Kovalchuk seemed very disconnected and branded as a selfish player as New Jersey stumbled out of the gates to the 2010-11 campaign. As the Devils dropped deeper and deeper into a hole in which they ultimately could not get themselves out of, the talented winger appeared to sulk and his leadership qualities were called into question.

Even though the team finally did get their act together when Jacques Lemaire took over for the fired John MacLean beginning in January of 2011 and put forth a blazing two months with the best record in the League, the improbable comeback sprint to the postseason finish line came up just short. Kovalchuk did manage 31 goals, but with just 60 points an a team-worst -26 rating, the campaign could be considered nothing short of a disaster.

Despite going all out in order to bring the high-scoring winger back into the fold, New Jersey was left sitting home when the 2011 playoffs commenced.

Kovalchuk did, however, acknowledge the difficulties of his first season in N.J. "Last year was tough," he admitted Tuesday in media day interviews.

There really wasn't much reason for much optimism regarding Lamoriello's club heading into the 2011-12 season. Rumors that the Devils were on the verge of bankruptcy swirled, and new head coach DeBoer's troops got off to a 4-5-1 start.

Everyone offering their opinions on the perceived ruination of the New Jersey franchise pointed to that fateful day in July, 2010, in which Lamoriello supposedly sold his soul -- apparently an appropriate price for a team nicknamed the Devils -- for the sole purpose of making sure Kovalchuk came back to the Garden State.

But Lamoriello has always been a shrewd hockey man, the architect that constructed the foundation with which three Cup championships were built. He knew he was on to something big, and his patience has pay off better than most could possibly foresee.

With Kovalchuk leading New Jersey in goals (37), points (83), shots on goal (310), power play goals (10), and even chipping in with three shorthanded tallies and coming up clutch with five game-winning goals, the Devils finished the season as one of four Atlantic Division clubs with more than 100 points for the year, locking up the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference.

The postseason has seen much of the same from the Tver, Russia-native, as he has registered seven goals -- which ties him with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac for the team lead -- and an NHL-high 18 points and five power play goals. Kovalchuk has played a key role in New Jersey's dispatching of the Florida Panthers, Flyers, and New York Rangers as they have locked in their spot in their first Final since 2003.

And that perceived lack of leadership that so many aired regarding Kovalchuk? That was evidently completely lost on DeBoer when he took over the reigns of the team a year ago. In his media day interview Tuesday, he said while evaluating which player should captain his club, he felt Parise should retain the "C".

But he also added there were some others that impressed him with their leadership abilities. "We had other candidates (other than Parise), obviously, Elias, Kovalchuk, all the guys wearing the A's," the coach said. "I felt very comfortable with what Zach represented and I also felt comfortable he had a very good group around him that would help him with the position, with (Patrik) Elias, (Martin) Brodeur, Kovalchuk, (Bryce) Salvador, (Henrik) Tallinder. Those guys."

That's right, Kovalchuk is regarded as one of the core leaders on the team he supposedly had helped to destroy. And he will lead them into battle with the Stanley Cup on the line, against a Los Angeles team in which he nearly became a member. The irony is incredible.

"No, it wasn't a doubt in my mind," he said when asked if he ever wondered if he made a mistake coming to New Jersey Tuesday in the media day press conference, then gave the reasons why he knew it would all work out.

"First of all, my family loves it here. We have a good house, my daughter in a good school. My two sons running around, fortunate with the good weather here. New York is close, too. We're happy."

"But we sure it pays off," Kovalchuk added. "We have a great coaching staff, great players here, great group of guys, very close to each other. I think that makes a big difference."

A huge difference, including a change in Kovalchuk himself, that could lead to his club hoisting Lord Stanley at center ice when all is said and done.

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