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|21 января 2007
Kovalev: love him or hate him // The Gazette
"From listening to phone-in shows, it's obvious a lot of people felt it was Kovalev who should have been sitting in press box."
Canadiens fans seem to have a love/hate relationship with Alex Kovalev.
No player on the Canadiens is blessed with more individual skills to bring fans out of their seats at the Bell Centre, but no player is more frustrating to watch on too many nights.
The hate part of the relationship was evident when coach Guy Carbonneau decided to make Craig Rivet and Sergei Samsonov healthy scratches for last Tuesday's game against the Vancouver Canucks, which the struggling Canadiens lost 4-0. After listening to radio phone-in shows as well as comments from other media members, it's obvious a lot of people felt it was Kovalev who should have been sitting in the press box.
I have to agree. And Jacques Demers, who coached the Canadiens to their last Stanley Cup victory in 1993, also agreed.
Demers, who is now a hockey analyst for RDS, was on TSN's Off the Record Thursday night, and host Michael Landsberg asked him about Carbonneau's decision to sit Rivet and Samsonov.
"I would not have benched Craig Rivet, because Craig Rivet plays . . . that's my opinion," Demers told Landsberg. "Craig Rivet plays hurt, plays sick, had played 158 (consecutive) games. Was Craig Rivet playing well? No. Was he trying hard every night? Absolutely. I would have benched someone else.
"I would have benched Alex Kovalev," Demers added, "because Alex Kovalev is a very talented player who could change the game around for Montreal on a given night. But he has a reputation to play one out of four games, and that's exactly what he's done. I don't know what's wrong with him. To be honest with you, off the ice he's a great guy. He's got so much talent, but he has a reputation like that. I know he doesn't like to hear that, but it's a fact."
There are two moments that stand out in my mind when I think about Kovalev in a Canadiens uniform - one bad and one good.
First, the bad moment: It was the second overtime period of Game 4 of the 2004 Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Boston Bruins. Kovalev had the puck near the Canadiens' blue line when he was slashed on the hand by Travis Green. Kovalev let go of the puck, reached to grab his hurting hand and collided awkwardly with teammate Sheldon Souray, giving Glen Murray a clean breakaway, which he buried to give the Bruins a 4-3 victory and a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
"I saw he got slashed," Souray told reporters after the game. "Maybe it should be a penalty, but do you stop playing? In double overtime? ... I was just caught by surprise that he left the puck there and there was nobody behind him. So obviously, you want to go back and get the puck."
Amazingly, the Canadiens came back to win the series in seven games, with Kovalev getting 10 points in 11 playoff games before the Habs were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who would go on to win the Stanley Cup. But if the Canadiens hadn't rallied to beat the Bruins - and with the image of Kovalev leaving the puck at the blue line in double OT still fresh - you have to wonder if the Canadiens still would have signed him to a four year, $18-million U.S. free-agent contract after the 2004-05 lockout.
Now, the good moment: It was last March 25, a Saturday night game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre. During the third period of a 6-2 Canadiens victory, Darcy Tucker tried to cheap-shot Kovalev. The 6-foot-2, 229-pound Russian exploded with raw emotion and showed what a physical presence he can be, flattening Tucker with an elbow and getting into a fight. The fans went wild.
But I'm starting to wonder if Canadiens fans might be expecting too much from Kovalev these days. Recent statistics show that the 33-year-old has become a $4.5-million, 20-goal scorer with little physical presence who is a minus player.
Heading into last night's game, Kovalev ranked 90th in the NHL in points (34), 106th in goals (12) and 668th in plus/minus (minus-7). In 48 games, Kovalev had been credited with only 25 hits to rank 406th in the NHL and 14th on the Canadiens. Mike Komisarek led the team with 160 hits, while rookie Maxim Lapierre already had 30 hits in only 12 games. Rookie Guillaume Latendresse had 101 hits in 47 games. Latendresse also had nine goals - only three less than Kovalev, who had 305 more minutes of total ice time than the rookie.
Last season, Kovalev ranked 64th in the NHL in points (65), 84th in goals (23) and 433rd in plus/minus (minus-1). For the 2003-04 season - his first in a Canadiens uniform - Kovalev ranked 105th in points (45), 152nd in goals (14) and 770th in plus/minus (minus-9).
"Montreal Canadiens depend on Alex Kovalev to change the game around for the team," Demers told TSN. "He has signed a four-year contract - after this year there's two years left - so he could make the difference. He has made the difference some nights and when he makes the difference, boy is he ever good. But he's not doing it enough for a team that has a lot of rookies and a lot of second-year players."
Maybe Canadiens fans should start wondering if Kovalev is still capable of making a difference over the long haul.