Don’t Expect A Warm Welcome Back For Kovalchuk As Devils Face The Kings

Kyle Palmieri celebrates scoring against the Kings

Palmieri celebrate after scoring versus the Kings. (Photo Credit to Mark J. Terrill of AP Photo)

Tonight, the New Jersey Devils face the Los Angeles Kings in a 7:00 PM matchup at Prudential Center, but in the eyes of many fans, this is a lot more than that. This isn’t a match of New Jersey against Los Angeles. It’s not a matchup of the Western Conference versus Eastern Conference. It’s not a matchup of the 2012 Stanley Cup winners and the 2012 Stanley Cup losers. For most, tonight is a matchup of Ilya Kovalchuk and the team he left behind.

This marks the much sought after, for various reasons, return of Kovalchuk to the Prudential Center since his unceremonious “retirement” after the lockout shortened 2013 season. While Kovalchuk did have a few positive contributions during his tenure in Jersey, his name will forever be remember with scorn and infamy.

To look at the silver lining, maybe that’s a good thing, at least for tonight. The Devils and Kings are at the bottom of their respective divisions, and from different conferences, so normally interest would be low for a weeknight game like this. Instead, due to Kovalchuk’s presence, Prudential Center will be filled with more emotion than it normally is on a Tuesday night, even if that emotion is anger, betrayal and regret.

Players To Watch

Ilya Kovalchuk: Don’t act surprised, you knew this was coming. In one way or another, Kovalchuk is going to be a factor in tonight’s game. He’s coming off a two-assist night against the Rangers, so he could play a decisive hand in a Kings victory. That, or he could fall victim to the thunderous reaction from a home crowd that will be overwhelmingly in the Devils favor. Don’t expect the Devils’ players themselves to play as if they have a personal vendetta against Kovalchuk. After all, only two players on the team were actually on the same Devils roster as Kovalchuk (Travis Zajac and Andy Greene).

Keith Kinkaid: After the surprise demotion of Mackenzie Blackwood to Binghamton, the Devil’s goaltending was left in the hands of Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider. Kinkaid is a shell of his former glory from last season, but still the winningest of the two goalies this season. The Kings are almost destined to start their back up goalie, as they are in the second half of a back-to-back, so that works in Kinkaid’s favor. That, in addition with potential trade rumors swirling around, and we might see a better than expected effort of him this evening.

Marcus Johansson: Johansson has been increasing his production, but there’s more to that. He is widely believed to be one of the Devil’s main trade chips as we approach the deadline, so look for him to be put on the ice more often and put a little more effort in each shift to impress any potential suitors. That may, or may not, have something to do with his promotion to the first line in the loss of Taylor Hall to injury.

Keys To Victory

Ilya Kovalchuk: While it isn’t a stat that you can quantify, the Devils play better hockey with an engaged home crowd that brings more excitement than usually through the Prudential Center doors. For example, look at their winning efforts in recent jersey retirements and special event nights. Tonight may not include a jersey heading into the rafters or a free bobblehead giveaway, but that same energy is there. One downside to consider is that the sentiment of being “anti-Kovalchuk” might overpower support for the Devils. An odd thing to consider, but something to consider nonetheless.

Ilya Kovalchuk

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Rest Factor: The Devils haven’t played since their north of the border win against Montreal on Saturday afternoon, so they’ve had plenty of time to rest and get reacquainted with their home arena. Meanwhile, the Kings are in the middle of an east coast road trip and playing their second road game of a back-to-back. Granted that win was an overtime win, but even a winning effort that takes longer than sixty minutes will make you tired when you hit the ice again the next day.

Hold A Lead Or Expect To Lose It: The Devils never had the lead in Montreal, with their only go-ahead goal being in sudden death overtime. That’s in contrast to a few nights earlier when the Devils blew a 2-0 lead they carried into the second period against their biggest rival en route to a regulation loss. The Devils can fight from behind, but only if they don’t blow their own leads. Los Angeles won in similar fashion to the Devils victory in Montreal, a come-from-behind overtime victory.

Line Combinations:

New Jersey Devils:

Johansoon-Hischier-Palmieri
Wood-Zajac-Coleman
Bratt-Zacha-Stafford
Boyle-Rooney-Gabriel

Greene-Severson
Mueller-Butcher
Yakovlev-Santini

Kinkaid/Schneider

Los Angeles Kings:

Iafallo-Kopitar-Brown
Leipsic-Carter-Toffoli
Hagelin-Kempe-Kovalchuk
Clifford-Amadio-Wagner

Forbort-Doughty
Martinez-Fantenberg
Ladue-Phaneuf

Campbell/Quick

Prediction:

Both teams are bad, but the Kings are tired and the Devils will be encouraged by their fans to play for pride. Add that to the fact that the Kings aren’t coming into this one well rested. I’m predicting 3-1 Devils.

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