Although he practiced today on the fifth line with Andrei Loktionov, Krys Barch and Tom Kostopoulos and remained on the ice for extra work afterward, he sounded optimistic that he could be back playing soon.Neither Kovy nor DeBoer would say whether they expect him in the lineup Saturday afternoon, but I'd be surprised if he didn't play in at least one of the weekend games given his rapid improvement. Remember, only two days ago, Kovy seemed visibly frustrated with the lack of progress in his shoulder. The fact that he was able to take a pain-free one-timer during practice today is a big boost to his confidence and also DeBoer's confidence in putting him in without worrying about Kovy suffering a worse injury.
“I felt the best so far that I felt,” Kovalchuk said. “I feel pretty confident. I took a couple of one-timers and a little bit of contact, so it’s good.”
With the Devils’ playoff hopes on life support – they are six points out of a playoff spot with only five games remaining – Kovalchuk would love to come back and help the team. But he also said that he wants to come back and play even if the team is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention and has no interest in shutting down for the season.
“I want to get back as soon as I can, definitely” he said. “I don’t care if we will be mathematically out or not. We’re all professionals. The fans deserve to see the best effort and we will fight to the last second of the last game anyway whatever happens. So, it’s not even in my mind to sit out the (rest of) year. I’m already bored as hell. It’s been almost four weeks skating here by myself every day and you can tell it’s not too much fun, so you want to get back as soon as you can.”
That said, I'm still very wary of putting him in these final five games. I get the whole "professional" angle and I admire that he's at least speaking with the fans/ticket buyers in mind. That'll go a long way toward winning him points with the fan base. However, you have to wonder if the rapid improvement has anything to do with the Devils suddenly getting a win and not being out of it. Athletes, particularly elite ones like Kovalchuk, feel they're the difference. They feel like if they're in the lineup, everything changes -- even in a team game like hockey. I'll bet you Kovy feels like if he hadn't missed this time the Devils would be in the playoff picture instead of staring up at it. So at some point, you have to protect the player from himself.
The math is against the Devils, but it hasn't eliminated them yet, so from that point of view I get the idea that you want him back. I get the alluring visual that is an 80-percent or 90-percent version of your best player back on the ice for the final stretch. But is it really worth it if he tears a labrum? Or aggravates whatever injury he's already dealing with? Why? For a couple extra points or goals at the end of the year? If I'm wrong and his return spurs them into the playoffs and he stays as healthy as possible, I'll admit it. But I'm just saying the cost-benefit angle needs to be part of this discussion.