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декабря 2008 года.
Kovalev Enigma is back // The Gazette.
With apologies to movie icon Clint Eastwood, perhaps we should call this one The Young, the Old and the Ugly.
Young. As in Alexander Ovechkin.
Old. As in Alexei Kovalev.
And ugly. Like Barry Melrose.
Young. As in Evgeni Malkin.
Old. As in Mats Sundin.
Ugly. Like the linesman's skate blade that opened the face of Martin St. Louis Saturday night.
I returned from a three-week trip through the western U.S., where hockey news was as scarce as pickups without shotgun racks, just in time to watch the banged-up Canadiens come up with a power shortage in a 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals.
It was only when I reached Vancouver that hockey came back into focus - but on the Left Coast, the only topic, 24/7, is Roberto Luongo's groin.
Here at home, the problems are obvious. First, the law of averages caught up with the Canadiens after a season in which they had fewer serious injuries than the Westmount Ladies Parcheesi Club.
You knew it wasn't meant to go that way again and it hasn't. Beginning with the long-term injury to Mike Komisarek, and now including captain Saku Koivu, the injuries are taking a toll. No coach wants to go into a game with five regulars missing, but the Canadiens are deep: they're supposed to be able to absorb injuries and keep on ticking.
It doesn't help that the power play isn't functioning, but the power-play problems also go back to the same old place: No. 27, aka The Enigma.
If you can figure out what is ailing Kovalev, please let me know. Better still, pass it on to Guy Carbonneau. Here the Canadiens are nearing the 30-game mark and Kovalev has a respectable 22 points, but only five goals. In four games, Matt D'Agostini scored one fewer goal than Kovalev has this entire season.
The strangest part is that Kovalev is in a contract year. Guys like him are supposed to wake up just in time for free agency, get the multi-year deal tucked away, then go back to sleep-walking.
Instead, Kovalev has to go into a funk at the worst possible time for himself and the Canadiens. He did hit a post Saturday night, but somehow his game simply lacks the fire and drive he displayed almost from wire to wire last season.
But why do people keep saying the Canadiens should sign Sundin? First of all, even in his prime Sundin could never lead his team even as far as a Stanley Cup final. Second, Sundin is Swedish for "Maple Leaf."
Meanwhile, Kovalev's no-show is in sharp contrast to the performance of two of his young countrymen, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. With Sidney Crosby, the numbers the Russians are putting up this year underline something else: the Superstar Gap in the NHL. It is as though the league skipped directly from the generation of Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr to Malkin, Ovechkin and Crosby without discovering any true
offensive superstars in between.
Malkin has 49 points on 12 goals and 37 assists, Crosby 44 points on 13 goals and 31 assists, Ovechkin 40 points on 17 goals and 23 assists. And Ovechkin, at 23, is the old man of the group.
The slightly older generation of NHL stars, on the other hand, is faltering - sometimes badly. If you divide the NHL's young stars into two groups, those who began their careers before the lockout and those who came into the league after the lockout, the latter group is doing far better.
While those young superstars soar, stars such as Vincent Lecavalier, Eric Staal, Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza and Maxim Afinogenov have slipped, stumbled and flopped. Kovalchuk has 30 points, Lecavalier 26, Nash 25, Spezza 22, Staal 20 and Afinogenov only 10 points in 27 games.
Or perhaps it's simply that we overrate those players who have been bigger names in the league than Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Jeff Carter, Phil Kessel and Nicklas Backstrom - not to mention Buffalo's 24-year-old Tomas Vanek with his league-leading 24 goals.
So much for the young and the old. Now things get ugly.
One of these years, the NHL is going to get serious about protecting its players. If you saw Martin St. Louis leave the ice late in that Ottawa game Saturday, you had the same queasy feeling I had: Was it possible that St. Louis had just lost an eye to the skate of linesman Derek Amell when Amell's skate came up accidentally late in the third period?
St. Louis was left with two cuts on his face, a gash that took eight stitches to close. He was lucky. Like many players, St. Louis had toyed with fate by refusing to wear a visor. With a visor, he would not have been injured - but still the NHL and the NHLPA refuse to make visors mandatory. They refuse to order all players to wear neck protection (see Sunday's Gazette) to guard against severed jugular veins.
And don't even get me started on no-touch icing. When Don Cherry and I agree on something, you know it's time for the league to act.
Ugly wouldn't be ugly, however, without a nod to Barry (The Mullet) Melrose. Here is a guy who rode Wayne Gretzky's coat-tails to the only 15 minutes of real fame he will ever have, a Stanley Cup final in which he was badly out-coached by the Canadiens' Jacques Demers.
Then Melrose turns up as a hockey analyst on ESPN, where he survives only because the network's hockey audience ranks somewhere between badminton and team handball.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning blow it big-time by giving Melrose another coaching job, he begins the season by knocking the defensive effort of players like Lecavalier and St. Louis, gets canned 16 games into the season, then makes a career out of bad-mouthing the team that foolishly hired him.
But things get uglier still: Rick Tocchet, who should never have been allowed back into the league after dragging Gretzky and Gretzky's wife into that gambling scandal with him, is proving every bit as erratic behind the bench as Melrose.
If he had enough hair, maybe Tocchet should get a mullet. I hear it was all the rage in 1983.