Ask Devils sharpshooter Ilya Kovalchuk about his metamorphosis from a pure goal scorer to the quintessential team player this season and he denies such a change has taken place. He insists his current stretch of superlative hockey is how he played for nearly eight seasons for the Atlanta Thrashers.

The problem, he said, was he often played in an arena full of empty seats and apathetic fans.

"When you play in a small market, nobody really recognizes that," he said Friday. "But when you play in a bigger market and you're the center of attention, the people start watching, and they understand hockey more, they see the way I play.

"That's how I've always played. It just takes a little time to adjust to a new place. This year, it's a little easier to play when your team is winning and everybody feels good about themselves."

Kovalchuck, in his 10th season, is playing some of the best hockey of his brilliant career and has bought into the Devils' team-first mantra.

In the past 15 games, he has 10 goals, 12 assists and a one-punch knockdown of the Philadelphia Flyers' Brayden Schenn, and is no longer a defensive liability. The blockbuster 15-year, $100 million contract he signed in 2010 is looking like money well spent after an inauspicious start to his Devils career.