Torrid start for enigmatic Kovalev
Montreal fans cheer his name as Panthers forward still shows some magic
Seven months ago, an out-of-work Alex Kovalev was thinking aloud about a possible return to the Canadiens.
"I always think about having left Montreal," he said during a long talk last June, his four-plus seasons with the Canadiens having ended in July 2009 when he signed a two-year, $10-million contract with the Ottawa Senators.
"You make a mistake in life and you learn from it. I would make a different move if I could have that back. I'd definitely like to come back to Montreal. They're all about the young guys, but I can help in all different ways. And I can still play. I have a lot of energy."
In the end, a return to Montreal worked out pretty much as did his time in Ottawa, that is, it didn't. The Habs defeated the Florida Panthers 4-1 Tuesday night.
But now, gainfully employed with the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., Kovalev at least can play his NHL hockey for a healthy number of Quebec snowbirds who fly south for the winter.
The gifted Russian made his latest return to the Bell Centre on Tuesday, his name greeted with a loud cheer when it was announced as a Panthers starter.
A month from his 40th birthday, Kovalev continues to show there's some magic on his stick blade, having scored and assisted twice in the Panthers' season-opener Saturday.
His pace for a 144-point season - a joke, yes - evaporated Monday in Kanata when he registered just one shot during 14: 32 on the ice in his club's 4-0 loss to the Senators.
Lifetime, for the Canadiens and the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Senators, Kovalev had 61 goals and 94 assists in 184 Bell Centre games after Tuesday night. Four goals and two assists were scored for Ottawa in six games in Montreal since he left the Habs at the end of 2008-09. "I've missed being on the ice. I'm happy I had a chance to come back to the NHL," Kovalev said.
There was no need for him to be at the arena at this hour, having played the night be-fore. But he's probably equal parts creature of habit and adult rink rat.
"I still love this game," he said. "I love playing and the idea of winning, the celebration, travelling and being with teammates."
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen is using his greybeard on a line with 19-yearold phenom Jonathan Huber-deau - who was one month in his mother's womb when Kovalev's NHL career began - and Peter Mueller. So far, so good.
"I'll play as long as I can," said Kovalev, who famously has wished aloud he'll be in the league at 50. "It comes down to the point of where I can't keep up any more, there'll be no reason to be out there, wasting my time or anyone else's.
"But I'm in good shape, I worked really hard to come back and I'm happy to be playing with a young kid (Hu-berdeau). I can learn something from him, and he can learn something from me."
Many thought Kovalev's NHL career was done when he left North America following 20 games with Pittsburgh to finish the 2010-11 season; he was traded there when his time with the Senators turned sour, the result of a constant feud with then-coach Cory Clouston and his own glaring underachievement on the ice.
He signed a two-year deal in the autumn of 2011 with Moscow Oblast Atlant of Russia's Kontinental league, but that soured when a mangled knee he returned to have surgically repaired in Pittsburgh didn't heal to his KHL club's satisfaction. Kovalev was bought out of the contract, once again making him a free agent, and the Panthers signed him.
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