Alexei Kovalev breaks out of the shadow of two stars in Pittsburgh
The consensus among players polled by SI at the All-Star Game
earlier this month was that either one of a pair of Penguins,
Jaromir Jagr or linemate Mario Lemieux, would wind up leading the
league in goals. No one cited Pittsburgh's second-line sensation
Alexei Kovalev, who could be the man to beat.
After scoring his second straight hat trick in the Penguins' 5-4
win over the Devils last Saturday--including the game-winner on a
neat backhand 18 seconds into overtime--he led Pittsburgh with 33
goals, two behind NHL leader Pavel Bure of the Panthers. Says
Penguins defenseman Marc Bergevin, "Mario Kovalev? Alex Lemieux?
I don't know what to call him."
Kovalev's nine-year career, including the first seven with the
Rangers, has been marked by streaks of brilliance but also by
such inconsistency that he had never scored more than 26 goals in
a season. Now, at age 27, he's tapping into his dazzling
potential night after night. "Naturally, the top line gets the
attention," says Penguins assistant coach Rick Kehoe. "But we've
got two lines that are hard to stop."
Kovalev has found a home alongside center Martin Straka (59
points) and left wing Robert Lang (56), the trio that carried
Pittsburgh before Lemieux's return from retirement on Dec. 27.
Kovalev is also the only Penguin who plays on the top power-play
and the top penalty-killing units. "He never wants to come off
the ice," says Kehoe. "He has so much strength, so much stamina."
An imposing 6'2" and 215 pounds, Kovalev maintains his muscle
partly through drills that include sets of sit-ups and push-ups
after every game--even when that means doing them on the floor
of the visitors' locker room as hordes of media mill about. That
dedication has been noted by Lemieux, the Penguins' primary
owner ("Kovalev's unbelievable," he says), even as he braces for
the consequences: Kovalev earns $2.3 million and will be a
restricted free agent after the season.
"I cannot control myself right now, I'm so happy," Kovalev said
last Saturday. "I hope I stay like this for the rest of my
A Few Wrinkles To Iron Out
To put the thanklessness of a referee's job into perspective,
consider that when SI recently asked a Western Conference general
manager to name the worst official in the NHL, he grumbled, "All
of them." Hockey folks grouse about refereeing as a matter of
course, and this season's complaints have focused on the
shortcomings of the two-referee system, which the league began
phasing in during the 1998-99 season. (This year, for the first
time, all games are officiated by two referees.) While most
players agree that the extra ref has helped cut down on fouls,
they also cite a lack of consistency within each game. "One guy
calls one thing, the other guy calls another," says Maple Leafs
enforcer Tie Domi.
A major difficulty has been finding a suitable pairing system.
Young refs tend to call more penalties than older refs do, and
when they work together, it exacerbates the inconsistency.
"That's just how it is," says the league's director of
officiating Andy Van Hellemond, who was an NHL referee for 24
seasons. "I was much more aggressive when I started than I was at
Yet Van Hellemond's experiment of pairing two experienced refs
or two inexperienced refs has also inspired objections--namely
that the young pair can be intimidated and lose control of the
game. "I don't understand why you don't have a veteran with a
young guy," says Devils coach Larry Robinson. "There's so much
to learn. You wouldn't put two rookie players on the ice
The growing pains are inevitable because, with expansion and the
implementation of the two-ref system, the league employs 46
referees, up from 27 in 1997-98. The demand for high-quality
officials is likely to outstrip the supply for years, which is
why hockey executives such as Flyers general manager Bobby
Clarke suggest that "we should start looking at bringing in
Van Hellemond likes that idea. But, he says, because of the
training that would be required (to orient them to the rules and
style of the North American game), the use of European refs is at
least two seasons away. Even then, Van Hellemond doesn't think
the complaints would die down. "People are always going to blame
the refs," he said last Friday. "Somebody out there is probably
blaming us that it's Friday."
Owen Nolan's Suspension
Much Less Than He Deserved
The NHL's meager 11-game ban of Sharks right wing Owen Nolan for
his Feb. 1 cheap shot on Stars forward Grant Marshall speaks
volumes about the league's attitude toward gratuitous violence.
Last November, when commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Marty
McSorley for one year for his stick attack on Donald Brashear, he
said, "If anyone perceives this as raising the bar, I am
comfortable with that." He hasn't raised the bar, and the NHL
statement last Friday that "[Nolan's] type of play is
unacceptable" was laughably soft in its wording. Nolan should
have been suspended for at least 20 games.
Marshall was about to step off the ice when Nolan blindsided him
with a vicious forearm smash to the head that dislodged
Marshall's helmet. The Dallas forward fell, knocked his skull on
the ice and was hospitalized with a concussion. Nolan's hit was
premeditated--after the game he said he'd gone after Marshall to
avenge Marshall's rough check on him earlier in the match.
McSorley's infamous attack (SI, Nov. 20) was different from
Nolan's because McSorley used his stick. Nolan's punch, however,
was equally dangerous. In November 1998, Kings enforcer Matt
Johnson punched Rangers defenseman Jeff Beukeboom in the back of
the skull, causing severe head trauma and ending Beukeboom's
Nolan has a history of violent play--he's been suspended once
before--yet he'll return well rested for the stretch run. By
failing to take a hard line against Nolan, the league has shown
where Mr. Bettman's bar is really set.
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