NEWARK, N.J. (AP)
llya Kovalchuk has been avoiding questions about his health and his lack of scoring for days, and nothing has changed with the New Jersey Devils on the brink of being eliminated from the playoffs by the Florida Panthers.
Asked about his health, the superstar right wing smiled, and said he was fine. He said rumors about a groin injury were inaccurate.
When questioned about having only two goals in five games, Kovalchuk steered the conversation to the Devils playing well in their own end.
What Kovalchuk was willing to talk about was his team. He likes the Devils' chances in Game 6 against the Panthers Tuesday night at the Prudential Center, and knows what he has to do to force a deciding Game 7 in this first-round East series.
The game plan won't be for Kovalchuk to singlehandedly carry the Devils, who are on the verge of exiting the playoffs in the first round for the fourth time in a row, save for last season of course, when they didn't even qualify.
''It's not an individual sport,'' said Kovalchuk, the Devils' leading scorer in the regular season. ''The worst thing I can do is try to do everything by myself. It has never worked out. I have tried it a lot of times in the past when I was frustrated and did things I shouldn't do. That's when you get yourself and the team in trouble.
''We're a great team all year long and we just have to do what the coaches say.''
For starters, the Devils need to show a lot more intensity than they did in dropping a 3-0 decision in Game 5 on Saturday to fall behind 3-2 in the series.
There were battles in that game in which the Panthers looked like the much more desperate team.
''We put ourselves in this situation and so we just have to look at it one game at a time.'' Kovalchuk said after the Devils held a brisk 45-minute practice on Monday. ''It's a huge game for us and I think we were sharp today. We did what we wanted to and we're ready to go.''
The start will be key for both teams, especially in this building.
New Jersey jumped to a 3-0 lead in Game 3 here, before squandering the advantage and falling 4-3. Two nights later, Martin Brodeur returned to the nets and blanked the Panthers.
''It's the same thing every game of this series,'' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. ''The tempo always seems to be set right at the start of the game. So I would expect nothing less than that desperation mode for a team that's down by one and also wants to win the series. It's two clubs that will be colliding very early in the game.''
Kovalchuk, who has never won a playoff series, let the Panthers in on one tactic. He intends to shoot more against Florida goaltender Jose Theodore, who handled all 30 shots on Saturday night in posting his second career playoff shutout.
''I think all of us, we have to shoot the puck more and we have to create more traffic,'' said Kovalchuk, who had a team-high 35 goals in the regular season. ''We don't want Theodore to feel comfortable in net. You know when we have traffic in front of him, he gives up a lot of rebounds. We just have to take advantage of it.''
The Devils defensemen have to pick it up. They combined for one shot on goal in Game 5.
''We're expecting their best hockey, them to be desperate, all those things,'' veteran center Stephen Weiss said after the Panthers worked out in Florida on Monday. ''We'll be ready, too.''
If the Devils lose, this could be the last time that Brodeur and forward Zach Parise play for the team. Both will be free agents after this season.
Parise has refused to talk about his future until after the playoffs.
The 39-year-old Brodeur who has led the team to three Stanley Cup titles seemingly wants to return.
''The future will take care of itself regardless of the decision I'll make or the one the organization will make,'' Brodeur said. ''I have been fortunate to play a lot of years and did a lot of great things and eventually something will come at the end.
''But I don't know when.''
In almost the same breath, Brodeur said he likes the Devils' chances against a team that has not won a playoff series since 1996.
''If we execute and play well, we feel we will challenge these guys,'' he said. ''It's tough to close out a team. I think you have to play well and make them make mistakes and they will get anxious to put us away. We just have to be patient.''
The Panthers, however, have shown they can win on the road.
''We have to go in there and make a statement with this game,'' Dineen said. ''There'll certainly be no sitting on anything. I think both teams will leave everything on the ice and see how it plays out.''
If a Game 7 is necessary, it will be played in Florida on Thursday.