Sidney Crosby is the face of the league and Vincent Lecavalier may be the best player right now but the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators face the NHL’s most potent goal scorer this weekend.
And they better beware. Atlanta Thrashers star winger Ilya Kovalchuk is on a mission. The NHL’s leading goal scorer with 24 is on pace to become the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96 to eclipse the 60-goal barrier.
“I would trade all my goals for a playoff spot. Whatever it takes,” Kovalchuk told The Canadian Press after practice on Thursday. “But when I score we usually win the game, that’s what I’m here for.”
The brash, young Russian sniper that first invaded the NHL as an 18-year-old six seasons ago has grown up. He’s got an ‘A’ on his jersey for the first time in his NHL career and he’s acting like it. He’s scoring more goals than ever but it’s with a purpose.
“This is the maturity in him,” said Thrashers GM and head coach Don Waddell. “He loves to score goals, there’s no doubt about it. But more importantly, he wants to win games. He wants to bring this team back to the playoffs and then deep into the playoffs.
“When we went through a real hot streak earlier this season, certainly he was scoring goals but more importantly he was leading this team through his passion.”
The 24-year-old Kovalchuk is carrying the Thrashers on his back as he tries to steady a season that started so wrong. The team’s 0-6-0 start cost Bob Hartley his job as head coach.
When Waddell went behind the bench, he knew what to do.
“Don gives me a lot of ice time, he trusts me,” said Kovalchuk, seventh among NHL forwards with 22:39 of ice time per game.
Kovalchuk responded with some of the best hockey in his career. He leads the team with 41 points (24-17) in 30 games, also good for third in NHL scoring before Thursday’s games.
Putting up big numbers would have been good enough a few years ago. Now he wants more. When told he had a chance to duplicate former Russian great Pavel Bure in trying to net 60 goals, Kovalchuk gave a revealing answer.
“He was an exciting player to watch for sure,” Kovalchuk said of the Russian Rocket. “But you know, he never won anything and that’s really tough. You play so many seasons in the NHL and you didn’t touch the Stanley Cup … I don’t know, I don’t want to get the same history.”
Said Waddell: “It’s about how he’ll be measured, he can score 60 goals but it’s going to be if we had success as a team. If we combine the two, it’ll be a real tribute to him.”
Playing in Atlanta, Kovalchuk doesn’t get the kind of league-wide attention other stars do.
“It’s ok, it’s not a big deal for me,” insists Kovalchuk. “I don’t care what people are talking about, I only care about winning. When we win the Stanley Cup, then everybody will talk about us.”
Waddell has had a front-row seat to Kovalchuk’s development as a player and as a person. He rememders an 18-year-old Russian draft pick – first overall in 2001 – coming over to North America, insisting on living by himself as he tried to quickly integrate himself in North American society.
“One of his first days coming to practice, he was speeding and a police officer tried to pull him over,” recalls Waddell. “He drove for about two miles and finally when he stopped, he stopped in the middle of the highway. It’s a crazy story. The cop told me the story afterward, he says, ‘I didn’t know what I was dealing with here. I go up to the car in the middle of the highway and he doesn’t speak six words of English.’
“It just brings it all in perspective. He’s come a long way on and off the ice. The maturity in him as a person is what’s led him to be an even better player. And I think he’s only going to get better because he’s only still 24 years old. He understands now really what it takes to win. Not just to score goals, but to win.”
Kovalchuk is zeroed in on Friday’s game with the Maple Leafs.
“It’s a big game, we’re three points behind them,” he said. “If we want to be back in the playoff picture we need to win the home games because our home record is not very good right now (6-7-0). We need to play so much better at home.”
Atlanta then visits Ottawa on Saturday night. Kovalchuk says he’s no worse for wear after taking a dangerous knee-on-knee hit from Boston Bruins defenceman Mark Stuart on Thursday night.
“He hit me a bit higher than the knee,” said Kovalchuk. “There’s a little bruise but it’s not bad.”
As the league’s top goal scorer, he’s used to the physical approach from opposing defenders.
“When you play against the top D from the other team, they’re usually good skaters and big guys, they try to hit you but it’s a contact sport and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes it’s goes a little over the line but that happens. I don’t think (Stuart) did it on purpose.”