MONTREAL – The power-play goals have poured in this season but Alex Kovalev would like to see the Montreal Canadiens get a few more at even strength.
Eight of Kovalev’s 12 goals this season have come with the man advantage, including two in a 4-3 shootout win in Toronto this week. The Canadiens lead the NHL with a 29 per cent power-play success rate.
“It’s nice to have 12 goals, but one reason I’m not too happy is because most of them came on the power play,” Kovalev said Wednesday. “I’d be happy if we scored more 5-on-5, and kind of (played a more) complete game.
The reason for the veteran right-winger’s concern is embodied by the next team up on the Canadiens schedule – the New Jersey Devils, at their new arena in Newark, N.J., on Friday night.
“Last year when we played against them, they took maybe one or two penalties all year,” he said. “It’s going to be tough when there’s no power plays and we have to concentrate on scoring 5-on-5.”
The Canadiens are hoping the new arena will be a kinder place than the Devils’ old home at the Meadowlands.
Montreal has not won in New Jersey since Feb. 2, 2002, when they posted a 1-0 victory. They are 0-8-1 there since then but have yet to play in the new building.
Some of the losses can be put down to the Devils goaltender, Montreal native Martin Brodeur, who always seems to be at his best against the Canadiens.
But Montreal also struggles against tight defensive clubs, especially big, physical defensive teams as the Devils were for most of the last 12 years, a span in which they won three Stanley Cups.
The Devils have slipped a little defensively this season, but are still 10th in the 30-team league in goals-against, although they are 26th in penalty killing.
The 13-8-3 Canadiens have stayed in the top five in the Eastern Conference largely through their play with the man advantage, which has not skipped a beat since losing power-play point man Sheldon Souray to free agency last summer. Montreal’s power play also led the NHL last season, largely through Souray’s 19 goals.
“We’d definitely like to score more goals 5-on-5, but we’re still winning games,” said winger Chris Higgins. “We’re scoring on the power play and that’s a good, but we definitely need a little more offence to help ourselves out – win in regulation time instead of shootouts.”
This year, defenceman Andrei Markov has picked up the slack with four power-play goals, while Mark Streit has two from Souray’s old spot on the right point.
Markov’s health is a concern as he skipped practice Wednesday for a second time this week, although the team said he’s not injured. He had two assists against Toronto, but looked to be lacking jump on defence.
Fans have taken notice of Markov, who is second only to Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby in the East in all-star voting. Markov is third in team scoring with 19 points this season.
“I’ve said many times, he’s the kind of player that has to be seen,” Kovalev said of Markov. “Year after year he’s shown how good he can be and I think finally people realize that he deserves to be recognized as a top defenceman.”
It has been a turnaround year for Kovalev, who spent the 2006-’07 campaign fighting the puck and fending off controversy while scoring only 18 goals. He has already matched his eight power-play goals from last season.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised – we all know what kind of player Kovy is,” said Kovalev’s centre, Tomas Plekanec. “Right now, everything is going well for him and that’s good for the team.
“He had some difficult times last year, but that didn’t change my opinion on his play or his season.”
The Canadiens, who have scored 32 of their 73 goals on the power play, have moved players on and off the top lines looking for more even-strength goals.
Recently, they’ve settled on one line of Kovalev with Plekanec and left-winger Andrei Kostitsyn.
But Michael Ryder, a 30-goal scorer the last two seasons who has only three thus far, was dropped from his line with Saku Koivu and Higgins in favour of sophomore Guillaume Latendresse, who got his fifth goal of the season against Toronto.
The move seemed to benefit both players, as Ryder had some promising moments in Toronto.
And Ryder was moved back to the Koivu line for power plays, while Latendresse sat out for long stretches as the Canadiens tried to protect a one-goal lead in the third period.
That didn’t bother 20-year-old Latendresse.
“I watch the defensive players on the bench and learn from them,” he said. “I take notes, so if they ever need me to do that, I’ll know how to react in those situations.
“Right now, I’m in a learning phase. I think eventually I’ll be a player who can do that.”