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Kovalev's new trick: consistency
By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer
Nonetheless, Kovalev's track record in the NHL suggests he would have been a natural for a career in the film industry, too.
After all, there have been lots of times since he came to North America in 1992 when Kovalev has done enough in just a few dozen shifts to earn a starring role in his team's highlights tape.
And there have been just as many stretches when he seemed to be serving as a stunt double for the Invisible Man.
The simple truth is, while Kovalev has been described a lot of ways during his career -- everything from incredible to infuriating -- "consistent" never cracked the list. Or threatened to.
Game-breaker? Absolutely. Coach-killer? Perhaps. Reliable, game in and game out? Hardly.
Not until this season, anyway.
Oh, Kovalev hasn't been an impact player in all of the Penguins' first 24 games, and there have been a few when he was quite easy to overlook, but for the most part, Kovalev has been more steady than at any point during his previous seven NHL seasons.
"I'm having fun every game," he said. "Since I came here, I've talked a lot about consistency, and that's what I've been trying to do, and it looks like it's working for me."
While the paint-by-numbers approach doesn't always provide an accurate picture of a player's performance, in Kovalev's case, they help to prove a point: He hasn't gone more than two consecutive games all season without a point; during 63 games with the Penguins last season, he had point-less stretches of seven, five, four and three games.
A lack of consistency has long been the only major rap against Kovalev. If his game wasn't prone to such extreme lows, the Penguins never could have gotten Kovalev from the New York Rangers in the trade that sent Petr Nedved's rights to Manhattan last Nov. 25.
Kovalev is keenly aware of that criticism -- heck, he's lived with it for years -- and has made a concerted effort to invalidate it. That was apparent to Penguins Coach Kevin Constantine when Kovalev reported to training camp three months ago.
"He walked into the building for the first time this year, still had his hockey bag over his shoulder," Constantine said. "He said, 'Hi,' and we started talking, and one of the first things he set as a goal this year was, 'I want to be more consistent.'
"He's been more focused and more consistent. That's what he set his mind to and that's what's happening."
Certainly, he's been their only dependable source of offense lately. Kovalev has scored the Penguins' only two goals in each of their past two games, including a 3-2 overtime loss in Toronto Saturday, and has accounted for five of the team's past six.
There's no question he's on one of those rolls when opponents shouldn't count on being able to do much more than shake their heads in disbelief when Kovalev is on the ice.
"He seems to have nights where he really can just go anywhere he wants on the ice," Constantine said. "He's so big and skilled and fast and strong, that when he's on, he's good."
No, he's pretty much unstoppable. Kovalev can blow past opposing forwards with his speed, dance around defensemen with his shiftiness and unleash shots so nasty goalies should be grateful when the puck hits the back of the net instead of them.
Games like that have been part of Kovalev's repertoire for years, and he probably will continue to have them until he's well past his prime. The issue is how he performs the rest of the time.
"He's always going to have one out of every 10 games where he's on fire," Constantine said. "We just want to try to get him, in the other nine games, to be consistently good. He doesn't have to be great every night."
The Penguins do, however, count on him to contribute at both ends of the rink, and there's no question Kovalev's overall game is more sound than it was when he arrived from New York.
"I've added some parts to my game since I got here," Kovalev said. "I've learned things about playing two-way hockey."
Indeed, while he's not going to challenge Michael Peca or Jiri Lehtinen for the Selke Trophy, Kovalev seems to have a genuine interest in upgrading his work in his own zone.
"I'm trying to play defense as good as I can, protect the net," he said. "I just have to prove the kind of player I am."
Two-plus months into the season, he looks to be the type of player who's headed for a career year. With 12 goals and 11 assists in 24 games, Kovalev is on pace to get 40 goals and 37 assists; he has never had more than 24 and 34, respectively.
That kind of production will come in handy when Kovalev is up for another contract after the 2000-2001 season, but he insists personal stats aren't an issue.
"I'm not worried about if I don't score, or don't get points," Kovalev said. "If the team wins, everybody's happy. If the team loses, nobody's happy."
Needless to say, there hasn't been a surplus of joy around the Civic Arena this fall. The Penguins have been bobbing along below .500 and haven't won more than two games in a row all season.
Until that happens, Kovalev said, they'll have no reason to believe they've escaped the mediocrity that's been their hallmark during the past two-plus months.
"To [truly break out of a slump], you have to win four, five, six games," he said. "Even more, to get that feeling back."
Kovalev has done his part to make that happen. Done it more regularly than at any other point in his career. And doesn't seem to want much more than a chance to continue doing it.
"Every game, I'm going to out there and trying to play as hard as I can," Kovalev said. "Not worry about my future, my career, or how many points I [get]. I just want to play.
"Let everybody worry about everything else. Just let me play hockey."
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