OTTAWA – Always talented, sometimes frustrating, Alex Kovalev made his mark on the Montreal Canadiens.
Never was that more clear than when fans of the bleu, blanc et rouge staged a rally outside of the Bell Centre in an effort to keep him in Montreal this past summer.
On Saturday, the enigmatic Russian makes his return to Montreal for the first time since signing with the Ottawa Senators and it promises to be an emotional evening.
“He spent five years there and the fans loved him,” Senators captain and Kovalev’s new linemate Daniel Alfredsson said following practice Friday. “They probably have a lot of good memories from him, so I think it’ll be a good night for him and an exciting one.”
Kovalev spent four full seasons and part of a fifth in Montreal and during his time there, he was a polarizing figure.
Never far from controversy, he made headlines for the wrong reasons – such as when he denied criticizing then-coach Guy Carbonneau to Russian newspapers or was infamously kept back from a road trip last season by general manager Bob Gainey as a result of his indifferent play.
He also made them for the right ones, like his standout 35-goal, 84-point regular season in 2007-08 and being named most valuable in last year’s all-star game held in Montreal.
So it caused a stir when Gainey allowed the 36-year-old to leave as a free agent in the off-season, at least among the fans who loved him and congregated outside of the Bell Centre in late June to show Gainey their support for the player they lovingly called “L’artiste.”
Kovalev made the short trip up the highway to Ottawa when GM Bryan Murray signed him to a two-year, US$10-million deal. He didn’t make the trip when the Senators visited the Bell Centre during the pre-season, so Saturday night’s game will be the fans’ chance to thank him for his service.
Kovalev said Friday he’s not sure what kind of reception he’ll get.
“I hope a good one,” he said, adding that he’s trying to treat it like any other game, however difficult that may be. “I had some great moments there with the team, the organization and the fans. Tomorrow, when I get closer to the game, I’m sure there will be some emotions going through the head, but I’m trying not to think about it.
“I just have to not forget that I’m playing a hockey game. I’m not playing for Montreal anymore, I’m playing for Ottawa and we just try to be focused on the game, I know it’s going to be hard, but just try to get the win.”
Kovalev didn’t make best the first impression in Ottawa when, in August, he was quoted as saying he’d one day like to finish his career in Montreal. But given the fact that the line of questioning came during his annual charity golf tournament in Montreal in August, where he was surrounded by that city’s media, his comments had to be taken with a grain of salt.
Since then, he’s been slow out of the gate with just two goals and a minus-4 rating through the Senators’ opening six games, but he’s starting to fit in on a line with Alfredsson and centre Mike Fisher.
“It makes the game a lot easier when you understand each other,” said Kovalev, who had the Senators’ first goal in a 7-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. “The last couple of games we’ve started building chemistry and are feeling better as a line.”
Kovalev, who’s also played for the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins over his previous 17 seasons in the NHL, joked that he’s had bad luck in the past when he’s adhered to the tradition of posting a monetary reward for the teammate who notches the game-winner against his former team.
Montreal has lost four straight games since winning its first two to start the season and while Kovalev has often accused of not showing much emotion, the Senators think he’ll be pumped up to compound the Canadiens’ misery.
“I would think he would be,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said. “It’s human nature, he played so many years and he had a lot of success there. There’s got to be some extra emotion for that game.”