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Kovalenko Starting To Settle With Hurricanes
by John Tranchina | NHL Correspondent. EuroReport
For a guy who was traded twice and played for three different teams last year, Andrei Kovalenko is happy just to have some stability this season.
The right winger joined the Carolina Hurricanes in his second trade of the season last March, and has flourished in his new home. In the final 18 games of last season, Kovalenko scored six goals and 12 points, and chipped in two assists in four playoff games.
But this season, the Russian who has had trouble throughout his career with playing consistently began the season as a Hurricane spare part. Citing the same reasons his former teams last season traded him away -- lack of passion, not working hard enough, not enough attention paid to defensive play -- Carolina coach Paul Maurice scratched Kovalenko from the lineup for two early season games in October.
But the native of Balakovo, Russia has since rebounded and has been playing much better lately. Teamed with center Jeff O'Neill and right winger Gary Roberts on the Hurricanes second line, Kovalenko went on a recent five-game scoring streak, accumulating one goal and six assists, and has delivered an intense, all-around solid game.
"I think he's been playing great," O'Neill said. "He and myself and Gary Roberts have just been trying to work hard and generate some offense for our team and support Ronnie Francis' line. I think he's been working hard every night, and we've been getting some results."
Perhaps one of the biggest endorsements of Kovalenko's play came when Maurice did not turn to the first line -- consisting of Ron Francis, Sami Kapanen and Bates Battaglia -- when he desperately needed a goal.
Instead, Carolina's second line took the ice in the final minute of the Hurricanes' 2-1 loss to Dallas on December 8. They didn't tie the game, but just being out there in such a crucial situation spoke volumes about Kovalenko's value to his team.
"[Maurice] put us out in the final minute," Roberts acknowledged. "Andrei's worked very hard at that role. It's something, at times, obviously, that he hasn't had the opportunity to do."
"We've been playing pretty well lately," O'Neill added, "and when you're playing well, you get rewarded with more ice time. I think [Andrei] is definitely one of the beneficiaries."
"Those are great players," Kovalenko says of his linemates. "I just enjoy playing with them. Gary's a hard worker, goes hard to the net, finishes the check every time. 'O' is just a great scorer, so my job is just to help those guys."
As of December 30, Kovalenko was helping quite a bit, with six goals and 12 assists in 32 games, placing him seventh on the team in scoring. He was averaging 13:18 of ice time per game. That's not a ton of time, but part of that was due to him not playing much early in the season. All five of the players ahead of him had played at least 4:38 more per game.
Expectations for Kovalenko have been high ever since he joined the Quebec Nordiques in 1992-93 after playing three full seasons with CSKA Moscow in Russia. He scored 27 goals and 68 points that rookie season, and earned the nickname 'The Russian Tank' for his bruising style of play.
At 5-feet-11-inches (1.8 m) and 215 pounds (96.8 kg), the solidly-built Kovalenko is extremely hard to knock off the puck. Many people viewed him as a budding power forward who could score consistently, but it hasn't worked out that way. He hasn't matched the 68 points since, and only had one other year with more than 40 points-- back in 1996-97 when he scored a career high 32 goals and 59 points for the Edmonton Oilers.
But the Russian national team veteran always plays well in highly competitive international tournaments, having won both gold and silver medals in the 1992 and 1998 Olympics, respectively, and having competed in the 1991 Canada Cup and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. In fact, he scored four goals in six Olympic games in Nagano in 1998, when the best NHL players represented their countries, while accumulating only six goals in 59 NHL games for Edmonton the entire 1997-98 season.
That kind of inconsistency frustrated Edmonton to the point that they traded him to Philadelphia midway through last season. Then, after only 13 games in which Kovalenko counted only one assist in limited playing time, Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke had seen enough and dispatched him to Carolina.
Now, after a rough start to the season, Kovalenko is coming around and playing the type of game his coaches and teammates expect of him.
"He's played very, very well defensively for us," Maurice said. "I've been playing him on that line, I've been playing him a regular shift late in the game because he's played very well for us."
"He's played real well," Francis agreed. "He's strong on the puck, he's got a real good shot, and he's been making good plays. That line with him and O'Neill and Roberts has been really playing well for us, and he's a big part of it."
"He's a very skilled guy, and I think our line's played very well lately," Roberts continued. "He's a big part of it, he's working hard, and he's good down low. He's such a big, strong guy that when he gets the puck down low, he protects it very well. Jeff O'Neill and I have done a better job, I think, reading off him and seeing what he likes to do with it, and we're having some success."
Perhaps all he needed was a stable environment to play in, and a coach to have some confidence in him.
"I feel all right," Kovalenko smiled. "I'm healthy, I'm in good shape, I'm ready to play and I'm enjoying my game."
When asked why he thought Kovalenko was playing so much better lately, coach Maurice simply said, "I think because he knows if he doesn't, he's not going to play. I think that has a lot to do with it. He's been pushed a little bit to backcheck and to play hard, and he's doing that."
There is one other motivation for the 30-year-old to play well: he's quietly pulling for the NHL to once again send its players to the next Olympics in 2002, which will be in Salt Lake City, Utah. The league hasn't yet made a decision on whether or not to interrupt the regular season to let the players play for their respective national teams.
"I think if they make the decision to play in the Olympic Games it would be great," he said with an excited gleam in his eye. "I think the Olympic Games are a great experience for everybody -- for the players and for the fans."
"I don't know if I will get invitation for that or not," he added, "but I just would like to experience the Games. It's great watching for me, too!"
If he keeps playing the way he has been, he won't be watching in 2002.
Страничка Андрея Коваленко
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