NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk has seen Stanley Cup rings before.
He was even at a party with the Cup in 2003 in Moscow after Oleg Tverdovsky won it with the Devils that season.
This is the closest that Kovalchuk ever has come, however, to getting his own ring, his own day with the Cup in Moscow.
Kovalchuk and the Devils need just four more wins to get there. Only the Los Angeles Kings, the team that Kovalchuk nearly signed with as an unrestricted free agent two summers ago, stand in the way.
It begins with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday night at Prudential Center.
"It took me 10 years playing in this league to reach the Finals for the first time," Kovalchuk said Monday. "So, I'm going to go out there and play my hardest and try to enjoy it as much as I can."
Before this season, Kovalchuk, 29, had all of one playoff win on his resume. That came in the 2010 conference quarterfinals against Philadelphia after he was traded to the Devils earlier that season. In his seven-and-a-half seasons in Atlanta, he made it to the playoffs once, in 2007, and suffered a first-round sweep at the hands of the Rangers.
Kovalchuk went to All-Star games and scored 52 goals twice, but that wasn't enough for him. He wanted to win and, with his contract about to expire during the 2009-10 season, he realized that wasn't going to happen with the Thrashers, so he forced a trade.
"I always felt like I had a good time. I played a lot of minutes, I scored a lot of points, but I was done by April every time," he said. "That's when I decided it's time to move on. It was a little disappointing that I played there for almost nine years and we never had a chance to accomplish our goal, but now I know I made the right decision."
Kovalchuk also believes he made the right decision re-signing with the Devils two summers ago. Coincidentally, it was the Kings who made the second-best bid, offering 13 years and $84.5 million.
Kovalchuk opted to take a 15-year, $100 million contract to stay in New Jersey (after the 17-year, $102 million deal he initially signed with the Devils was rejected by the NHL). He insists money was not the deciding factor, though.
"I made more money (average per season) in my last contract than I do now," Kovalchuk said. "So, I don't think this was a money issue at all."
For Kovalchuk, it was about making sure his family would be happy. Before he made his decision, he visited L.A. with his wife, Nicole, to see if she would like it there. They felt that being in New Jersey, close to Manhattan, with plenty to do in the area for their three children and direct flights back to Moscow, was the best fit.
"Hockey, it's my job, but I want my family to feel good and be safe and live in a good area," he said. "I've got to raise my kids the right way, so that was the most important thing. That's why we decided to stay here."
There was still the matter of disproving the stereotype that followed him from Atlanta that he was not a team player or a winner.
Forget for a moment, that he leads the NHL in playoff scoring with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 17 games. It's about the more complete game he now plays and doing what's best for the team, such as this season's shift from left wing to right.
"This guy has made a commitment in a lot of different areas -- changing position, playing a 200-foot game, playing in his own end, killing penalties -- and he's getting rewards for that now like we told him he would," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "So, whenever that comes together, that's nice because you see the sacrifices that he has made in the video room, the time he spent and the time we spent with him. You need rewards for that."
The biggest reward awaits the winner of this series. Kovalchuk is close enough now to taste it.
"It's a team sport, hockey, and some great players never won, but you definitely want to be the winner," he said. "I really believe in hard work and if you work hard every day, you do everything to be successful, there's always going to be a chance. It looks like this year is my chance and I will try to do everything to get the job done."