MONTREAL -- One will be living out a childhood dream, playing 45 minutes from his hometown against the team he cheered for as a kid, while the other may be playing his final game in front of fans who grew to love him in his five years playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
Florida Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and veteran linemate Alex Kovalev will be coming from opposite ends of the experience spectrum, but will be experiencing similar emotions when they step on Bell Centre ice to face the Canadiens on Tuesday night.
"He's more than twice my age," said Huberdeau, a 19-year-old native of nearby St-Jerome who was the No. 3 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. "It's funny to think he was playing in the NHL before I was even born."
Kovalev, who turns 40 on Feb. 24, wouldn't be put off in the slightest by his young linemate's comments, because he finds it just as funny.
"I was laughing the other day with my sons and my wife that I'm playing with a kid who wasn't born when I won the Cup," Kovalev said.
In fact, Huberdeau was born one year before Kovalev raised the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994, and was 10 years old when Kovalev was traded by the Rangers to the Canadiens at the 2004 trade deadline for prospect Jozef Balej and a second-round draft pick.
After two straight poor seasons in New York, Kovalev struggled when he joined the Canadiens but caught fire in the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, notching 10 points in 11 games and playing a key role in the Habs' comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to knock out the heavily favored Boston Bruins in the first round.
It was the beginning of a romance between Kovalev and Canadiens fans, who had longed for a pure offensive talent for the better part of a decade. In his 314 regular-season games with the Habs, Kovalev scored 103 goals with 161 assists for 264 points, and his 84-point season in 2007-08 was the second-highest total of his 20-year career.
"I had great times here, it was a good experience," Kovalev said. "The organization was good to me and the fans were good to me. They were five years to remember."
Huberdeau's formative years in hockey coincided with Kovalev's renaissance in Montreal, so to find himself beginning his NHL career on the same line as a childhood hero is a bit of a surreal experience for the highly touted Panthers rookie.
"I tell him all the time that I watched his [instructional] DVD and I watched him play in Montreal all the time. I'm lucky to have him on my line," Huberdeau said. "He can do things no one else can do, it's fun to watch him on the ice."
The line of Huberdeau and Kovalev flanking Panthers newcomer Peter Mueller had an incredible debut in a 5-1 win Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes, with Huberdeau and Kovalev notching three points apiece. But the line and the team were shut out Monday night in a 4-0 loss at the Ottawa Senators.
"He's a pretty good kid, he's a good playmaker and he can hold on to the puck and he's pretty strong," Kovalev said of Huberdeau. "But there's still a lot for him to learn about playing at this level and being consistent at this level. The first game we all had a good game, then last night we didn't show up."
The Panthers play once in Montreal this season, but Kovalev said he didn't want to think about the possibility of this being his final game in the city that grew to love him. After spending a year away from the NHL, he is concentrating more on making the most of his opportunity with the Panthers and showing them and the rest of the NHL that he can be a useful player at his advanced age.
"It feels kind of strange at this age, I never thought I would be the oldest guy on the team," he said. "I'm trying not to think about it, I'm trying to be at the same level as everyone else and work as hard as they do and try to bring something to the team. … You might get weaker physically and your reactions might get slower [as you age], but your skill, you never lose."
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