MONTREAL – Alex Kovalev wasn’t sure how the Bell Centre crowd would react as he returned from his two-game banishment by the Montreal Canadiens for his sometimes disappointing play this season.
But the 21,273 in the seats gave him a rousing ovation in the pre-game warm-up, and the veteran winger responded with a goal and two assists as the Canadiens downed the Ottawa Senators 5-3 on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s nice when you come back and get that much support,” said Kovalev. “I didn’t know what the expect.
“But I’m a different person now. I have that hankering to play.”
With the team mired in a slump, general manager Bob Gainey told Kovalev to stay home as the Canadiens went on a road trip to Washington and Pittsburgh this week to rest and think about the listless play that has marred much of his season. Gainey’s feeling was that Kovalev wasn’t helping the team with the way he had been playing.
The 35-year-old who led the Canadiens in scoring last season said this week he had been battling a flu and a mysterious weight loss. But he admits he needed the break, even if he didn’t agree with it at the time.
“The most important thing was that I was able to get the bad thoughts out of my mind that have been building up all year,” he said. “You try different things and nothing works and then you get confused, but in the last few days I’ve been able to clear my mind.
“I made a joke with my teammates – I said it feels like I just got traded here.”
Kovalev, who scored for the first time in 10 games, also excelled on the penalty kill, particularly during two Ottawa two-man advantages in the third period, as the Canadiens (31-22-7) won for the first time in four games and only the fourth time in their last 16.
Tomas Plekanec, with his fifth goal in five games, Mathieu Schneider, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault also scored for Montreal in its first game back after a dismal 1-4-1 road stretch.
The Canadiens scored on their first three power-play chances and are now 7-for-12 with the man advantage since Schneider was acquired Monday from Atlanta.
“My first game here we scored three and I only touched the puck once, so I can’t take credit for that,” said the 39-year-old Schneider. “It’s a good feeling because that was one area in which we were struggling before.”
Dany Heatley scored twice and Jarkko Ruutu had the other for Ottawa (22-27-9). Defenceman Chris Campoli, acquired Friday along with Mike Comrie in a trade from the New York Islanders, had two assists.
The Senators are 0-2-1 in their last three games and 5-3-2 since Cory Clouston replaced Craig Hartsburg behind the bench.
“They came out strong and got the momentum,” said Clouston. “Obviously Kovalev’s goal compounded the momentum they had, scoring after what he went through.”
It was also Montreal’s first game since a story broke this week that said Canadiens winger Andrei Kostitsyn, his brother Sergei who is now with AHL Hamilton, and to a lesser extent defenceman Roman Hamrlik, had socialized with a man who faces criminal charges.
Pasquale Mangiola, who was arrested this month as part of what police called a crackdown on outlaw bikers and street gangs, faces charges that include conspiracy and possessing and trafficking cocaine. The allegations are not proven.
Hamrlik responded with two assists, while Kostitsyn saw his four-game scoring streak end, but played a decent game until he was hit by teammate Andrei Markov’s shot in the second period. He was able to continue playing.
The only crowd reaction was a fan in a Kostitsyn jersey who watched the game behind one net with a paper bag over his head.
“I’m very satisfied,” coach Guy Carbonneau said. “When you have a situation like we had this week, you hope it will bring the players together, but you never know.
“We saw they weren’t distracted. They had their minds on the game.”
Later Saturday night, CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry came to the Habs’ defence on Coach’s Corner, suggesting the media has blown the whole thing out of proportion.
“They didn’t murder anybody, they didn’t rape anybody, there’s no drugs and (NHLPA executive director) Paul Kelly tells me there’s going to be no charges, yet (Montreal) La Presse does them like they’re criminals or something like that,” said Cherry.
Philippe Cantin, editor of La Presse, reacted to Cherry’s comments later Saturday night.
“Stories linking organized crime to professional sport are always relevant and of public interest, and the reaction by Canadiens management to our investigations demonstrated that Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau were deeply troubled by the information uncovered by La Presse.”
Cherry echoed comments made by Gainey Friday, who cautioned his players to be careful about the company they keep.
“You gotta be very careful, especially juniors, when you get to the National Hockey League,” said Cherry. “You’ve got to be very careful who you associate with, you associate with bad company you’re going to get in trouble. As my mom used to say, ‘Lay with dogs and you’ll get up with fleas.”‘
Happy to seize on the positives, Kovalev’s strong return was singled out by Carbonneau.
“He’s done it before,” said Carbonneau. “That’s the kind of player he is. When he wants to play hard and he works, he’s a really good player.”
After Kovalev was named first star of the game, he tossed his stick into the crowd in a gesture of appreciation.
Ottawa starter Brian Elliot was pulled in favour of Alex Auld after allowing three goals on 17 shots at 3:25 of the third period.
The crowd was unusually quiet for the afternoon tilt, but erupted when Kovalev slipped a pass through the slot to Plekanec to the right of the net for a power-play goal 2:23 into the game.
Kovalev stripped Chris Phillips of the puck in the Ottawa zone, went in alone and beat Elliot with a wrist shot at 5:38.
Schneider picked the far, top corner from the right point on a power play 3:25 into the second and Brisebois had all the time he wanted to tee up and blast in a goal at 6:47 after Ottawa’s Chris Kelly lost his stick during a penalty kill.
The Senators then turned up the pace and Ruutu picked up Jesse Winchester’s rebound and beat Jaroslav Halak from a tight angle at 7:40.
Only 2:09 later, Heatley beat Plekanec to a puck at the edge of the crease and backhanded in his sixth goal in the last six games.
With 19 seconds left in the period, the Ottawa defence was napping as Dandenault was left alone to fire Roman Hamrlik’s rebound into an open side.
The Senators had three seconds left in a two-man advantage when Heatley banged in Jason Spezza’s pass at 17:06.
Kovalev had not scored in 10 games and had his first three-point game since Nov. 1.
“I’ve got to be careful – now everyone’s going to ask for three days off,” Carbonneau joked.
Ottawa now returns for an eight-game homestand that begins Tuesday night against Carolina. The Canadiens play host to Vancouver on Tuesday.
Notes: Daniel Alfredsson was a surprise starter for Ottawa. The Sens’ captain missed only one game after breaking his jaw this week in Colorado. He wore a jaw guard along with his visor. . . Comrie played on Mike Fisher’s line with Nick Foligno. . . Christoph Schubert, Brendan Bell and Alexandre Picard didn’t play for the Sens, while Georges Laraque, Francis Bouillon and Steve Begin were scratched for Montreal. Bouillon will be out for at least two weeks and probably much longer with a groin injury, Carbonneau said.