|Devil star Ilya Kovalchuk believes if his team plays up to par, they'll be tough to beat this postseason.|
It's not often a star player speaks up before the playoffs. But that's exactly what Devil superstar Ilya Kovalchuk did yesterday when discussing his team's chances with Post writer Mark Everson. In his second season, the electrifying Russian forward paced the Devils with 37 goals and 83 points- helping lead them back to the postseason after missing last year.
“If we play our best, nobody can beat us," Kovalchuk told Everson as New Jersey prepares to play third seeded Southeast winner Florida with the series not getting underway until Friday. This will only be the former 2001 first overall pick's third playoff year with the prior two far from memorable. In '07, a Kovalchuk-led Atlanta club were swept by the Rangers. Three years later, he was dealt to the Devils who were ousted by Turnpike rival Philadelphia in five games.
“I wasn’t successful at all during my career. It’s not enough for me,” Kovalchuk pointed out. “Everybody wants to be a winner.”
Despite being seeded sixth, the Devils enter red hot having won six straight. They boast five players who scored at least 20 with Kovalchuk, captain Zach Parise (31) and David Clarkson hitting 30-or-more. They finished with more points than the Panthers, who are making their first postseason appearance since 2000 when the eventual Cup champion Devils swept them in the same round. The Devils have enough experience to be the favorite despite not starting the series at home.
There will be two subplots with former Panther coach Pete DeBoer facing the squad that fired him. The other involves ex-Devil backup goalie Scott Clemmensen, who likely will get the call in net to go up against future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur. Another twist is former Cup hero John Madden facing off against the team he helped win two Cups.
Florida hosts the first two games on Friday and Sunday night before the series shifts to Newark starting the following Tuesday.