Leaders lift Devils in Game 3 over Flyers

As the saying goes, it’s playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back, that’s most crucial for success in the NHL playoffs.

But in the case of the New Jersey Devils, it seems the additional letter on the front — the "C" or "A" stitched into the upper left corner, just above the heart — means a little something extra, too.

All postseason, head coach Pete DeBoer has pleaded for his leaders to embrace the spotlight, expressing on multiple occasions the importance of his star players being just that. On Thursday, he got what he asked for, and in a big way.

New Jersey got a goal each from captain Zach Parise and alternate captains Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias, with Kovalchuk also adding two assists — the second coming on Alexi Ponikarovsky’s game-winning goal in overtime — as the Devils grabbed a 4-3 win over the Flyers and took a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal.

"Your best players have to be your best players," DeBoer said after the home ice-preserving win, repeating his now-familiar mantra. "You get goals tonight from Parise, Elias and Kovalchuk; that’s the right formula this time of year."

There was some concern heading into Game 3, however, that the formula might be thrown off for the second straight game by the absence of the former Atlanta Thrashers first overall pick Kovalchuk. After missing Game 2 with what was dubiously termed a "lower body injury" — a herniated disk, according to reports — his return for the rest of the series was in doubt.

But at Thursday’s morning skate, he was declared healthy enough to play — Kovalchuk called it "magic" on the part of the doctors and training staff — and he was immediately thrust back into the lineup.

"It can’t do anything but help," DeBoer told reporters just hours before the game, sounding almost prophetic in hindsight. "For me, if he is healthy to go, he’s healthy to go. It’s not healthy with an asterisk. We aren’t going to limit him in ice time or anything. If he’s in, it’s full in."

And just as his coach predicted, Kovalchuk — presumably playing through the kind of pain that would render lesser men couch-bound — started the game on a line with Ponikarovsky and Travis Zajac and didn’t take long to get in on the action.

The star left-winger played a part in both of the Devils’ first-period goals, as they built off the momentum of four third-period scores in Game 2 and took an early 2-1 lead in Game 3.

"When you’re around him every day, you realize what he’s capable of," DeBoer said. "He was very motivated to get back in and not disrupt the lineup … and I knew he was going to have a positive effect on the game."

It was actually Philadelphia that took an early 1-0 lead just 6:08 into the game on Brayden Schenn’s power-play score. But the Flyers’ advantage was short-lived, as New Jersey tied things up on a power-play goal of their own 6:25 later.

The equalizer came on an Elias slap shot set up by Kovalchuk and Marek Zidlicky just 24 seconds into the man-advantage. It was the first score since Game 3 of the first-round series against Florida for Elias, the Devils career leader in goals, a much-needed kickstart for the veteran in his 16th season and 14th postseason with the team.

"He’s a scorer, he’s a point producer and when you’re in those shoes, that’s what you want to do and it can be frustrating when the puck’s not going in," Parise said. "He looked a little relieved when we got that one in the first period, and we definitely need him if we want to keep winning."

Then before the PA announcer could call out the Elias goal, the Devils scored again, as Kovalchuk beat fellow Russian Ilya Bryzgalov 20 seconds later to give New Jersey a 2-1 edge with 7:07 left in the first.

"I just want to go there and fill into the lineup and do the right thing, be simple and be myself," Kovalchuk said of his return to the team. "You miss a game and you want to come back and contribute right away, so it was nice."

A goal by Philly defenseman Matt Carle tied the game up at 2-2 early in the second. The teams then went scoreless until the 12:31 mark of the third when Parise gave the Devils a 3-2 lead on a beautiful wraparound number he forced past Bryzgalov’s left pad.

It was the fourth goal of the postseason for Parise, who was assisted on the play by Elias, and it gave an undeniable jolt to the Devils bench — the kind you’d expect to be sparked by a veteran captain with Parise’s aplomb.

"When the guy wearing your ‘C’ is the hardest working guy maybe in the league, he drags other guys with him," DeBoer said. "The nice thing for us is we’ve got willing participants in our dressing room who are willing to follow that."

Then in overtime it all came full circle, as Kovalchuk, balky back and all, came through once again, this time assisting on Ponikarovsky’s game-winner, catching the Flyers in a line change and delivering a perfect pass to set up the goal.

"It’s a world-class play," DeBoer said. "Not many guys have the poise to hold the puck there, recognize a line change on the other team and spring somebody. There’s only a handful of guys in the league that make that play, and we’re fortunate to have one on our team."

But really, Kovalchuk is just one of three indispensable stars on the New Jersey roster. Every time the Devils lit the lamp Thursday, a captain or alternate captain had a hand in it, and it came as no surprise to anyone you asked.

"Good players will make good plays at the right time of the game," said goalie Martin Brodeur, a veteran leader in his own right, who made 25 saves in the win. "They have players that did it in Game 1 against us, and our guys did it in Game 3."

That extra letter stitched on a player’s sweater means something, especially here in New Jersey — whether the players themselves care to admit it or not. And the rest of the warriors in the locker room are well aware of how special their group of captains is.

The Devils are getting the kind of production they need out of guys who make up their heart and soul, and if they can find a way to keep it up, starting with Game 4 Sunday, it bodes well for the team going forward.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner