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The NHL

April 21, 2008
April 21, 2008

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April 21, 2008

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The NHL

What Next?
The improvisations of rededicated rightwinger Alex Kovalev keep even his Canadiens teammates guessing

This is an article from the April 21, 2008 issue

BEFORE ALEX KOVALEV and the Canadiens began their first-round playoff series against the Bruins last Thursday, The Gazette, the English-language newspaper in Montreal, broke out a 277-point headline on its front page that screamed not GERMANY surrenders, as might befit the startling size of the type, but merely GAME ON! Because the citizens of Montreal abandon all perspective in the postseason, Kovalev wanted his 68-year-old father, Slava, to come from Moscow for the experience. The elder Kovalev, who arrived with two games left in the regular season, has since been drawing up plays in the living room and quizzing Alex on why he isn't trying this move or that, obliging his son to explain himself. For a rightwinger who improvises like a jazz maestro—Kovalev actually plays the saxophone—this isn't always possible. Says linemate Tomas Plekanec, the center, "It's easier to read [Czech novelist Milan] Kundera than Kovalev. You just try to [match] his thinking and vision and hope for the best."

The 35-year-old Kovalev's best was on display in Game 2 on Saturday. He scored the winner 2 1/2 minutes into overtime with a blistering power-play slap shot over goalie Tim Thomas's left shoulder, but it was a play early in the second period of the 3--2 victory that was a portrait of the artist as an old man. With the teams playing four-on-four, Kovalev skated a lap and a half around flummoxed defenseman Mark Stuart—at such an unhurried pace, they could have been accompanied by the Blue Danube—and then flipped a backhander on net that led to a goal, a play of astounding virtuosity. The Canadiens held a 2--1 series lead after losing on Sunday in Boston.

The chants of "M-V-P" that rained on Kovalev late this season—he finished 11th in NHL scoring with 84 points—were far from the braying he heard a year ago after he clashed with the organization in the midst of a 47-point, --19 season; he often looked bored, and Montreal missed the playoffs. Two key factors spurred Kovalev to rededicate himself: 1) a snub from the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, which didn't invite him to play in the world championships in Moscow last spring even though he captained the 2006 Olympic team; and 2) a chat with Canadiens G.M. Bob Gainey during a summertime stroll in Montreal's Old Port. "It wasn't that complicated or profound," Gainey says. "It was just a chance to give him some options and ideas.... I let him know what my perception was of his production and performance, and our discomfort with that. He might not have seen it as clearly as other people did."

Kovalev responded with a renewed intensity. He also has become a veritable godfather to the flying Kostitsyn brothers, Andrei and Sergei, young Belarussians who each scored on his first playoff shift and are on their way to being point-per-game stars. After a disappointing 2006--07 in which Russian players such as Kovalev and a feckless Sergei Samsonov were the source of most of Montreal's headaches, the surprising Canadiens rode a wave that swept the NHL—three of the top four scorers were Russian—and floated to the top.

Like Slava Kovalev's X's and O's, you can't always draw this stuff up.

NOW ON SI.COM Writers' instant reactions on the NHL Playoff Blog.

PHOTODAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (KOVALEV)PASSING THROUGH Kovalev (27) had an artful assist and the winning goal in Game 2.