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Kovalev's game missing since losing the 'C'; "When he's off, Kovalev's stick is the place where power plays go to die." // The Gazette
The words dropped like spent shell casings from a smoking gun.
Guy Carbonneau was not happy. He was tight-lipped, eyes blazing. The old Carbo from the hockey wars, the gritty centre who would get in the face of a Gretzky or a Lemieux and dog him all night long.
Only this time, the player in his sights was on his own team.
By the time he addressed the Alex Kovalev Question, Carbonneau had already digested a month's worth of bad news. Robert Lang, the veteran centreman who has been the team's best player all year long, was taken to hospital with a slashed tendon on his foot. The Canadiens won't know for sure until today, but Carbonneau was clear: "It doesn't look good."
"Yes." Yes, as in season-ending. And that might be the Canadiens season, not simply Lang's, because unless Bob Gainey can pull off a brilliant trade, this team is perilously thin at centre ice.
And there was more carnage in a tough third period. Guillaume Latendresse was spun into the ice by Chuck Kobasew and sagged off to the room, his arm dangling the way it does when a guy has a separated shoulder. The Canadiens are saying "upper body," we're saying "shoulder." Josh Gorges, his bell rung by that nasty, leaping hit by Denis Gauthier Saturday is "day-to-day."
Oh, yes. And somewhere in there, the Habs lost again to Claude Julien's cruising Bruins, 3-1. They outshot the Bruins and they hit everything that moved - everything except the net. The Canadiens are now 18 points south of the Bruins and if you see a team other than the Devils that might keep Boston from a trip to the Stanley Cup final, we'd like to know who it is.
That was the bitter ending to a day that began in merriment. At least a couple of thousand kids in the crowd when the Canadiens skated out, looking like extras in a B movie about a bunch of clowns who bust out of the big house.
How did you react when you saw the uniforms from the 1912-1913 season - clearly not a vintage year? Gasp? Chortle? Gag?
All of the above with a Technicolor yawn thrown in? Truth be told, I thought this one was going to be a laugher for the Habs. The big, bad Bruins would take one look, laugh themselves sick, and the Canadiens would win 8-1.
With Claude Julien's Bruins, however, you have to earn your stripes. Most of the Canadiens did. Say 17 out of 20. One who did not was Kovalev, who was benched in the third period after playing all of three shifts, one minute and 47 seconds. With the Canadiens desperately looking for the tying goal, Tom Kostopoulos and Maxim Lapierre were out there. Kovalev was not.
So, is it true that Kovalev goes into the tank every time Koivu comes back from an injury and Kovalev has to forfeit the "C"?
"I hope not," Carbonneau said when Mitch Melnick popped the question du jour yesterday. "I hope that's not true. We're in trouble if it is, because I'm not going to take the "C" off Saku. If someone has to have a letter to perform on the ice, I have a problem with that.
"He's not a rookie. He's been in this league a long time. In the long run, we're going to need him."
More than ever, if indeed Lang is lost for the season. Lang has been a brilliant pick-up for Bob Gainey, a hard-working, versatile, talented veteran who, with his 18th goal yesterday, became the team's leading goal-scorer.
A team already thin at centre loses a player it could not afford to lose. Throw in the intermittently valuable Latendresse along with the long-term walking wounded such as Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque and, well - Houston, we have a problem.
Especially if the team's biggest talent, biggest ego and biggest enigma is going to go on playing as though his heart is in Omsk.
A week to the day after he was voted the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game, Kovalev yesterday was, once again, the team's LVP. Least Valuable Player.
For whatever reason, it seems that when Kovalev isn't wearing the "C," he isn't there, period. When the Hockey Night in Canada crew put together a package of Kovalev's lowlights after the win over the Los Angeles Kings Saturday, you could see plainly why it is that he drives people nuts.
There he was, lazily trailing the puck behind him with one hand on the stick in his own zone. Sitting on the bench, staring off into space like a baseball fan at a bad hockey game. Half-heartedly poking at the puck while one of the Kings freezes it along the boards during a power play, wasting 30 valuable seconds.
When he's off, Kovalev's stick is the place where power plays go to die. He immobilizes the puck. He waits and waits and then drifts a shot into a thicket of bodies. The artist becomes a finger-painter.
Worse, Kovalev seems to take the young Russians with him. Andrei Markov does his own thing and Kovalev doesn't appear to affect him one way or another - but the Belarus-born Kostitsyn brothers are another matter. I have no idea how the brothers spent their vacation, but when the Canadiens played in Florida after the all-star break, the Kostitsyns looked as though they had left a trail of exhausted Euro models along South Beach.
Andrei Kostitsyn finally picked it up Saturday. Brother Sergei looks as though he still has sand between his toes. Both seem to be following the leader and the leader doesn't lead unless he has that great big "C" on his chest.
Asked what specifically it was about Kovalev's missing game that bothered him most, Carbonneau said "that's between us." The coach left the distinct impression that he and his star player were due for a little heart-to-heart.
And wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall for that one?