Shortly before heading to the airport on Monday to join the Washington Capitals, the 36-year-old Russian winger met with members of the media at the Bell Sports Complex to share his thoughts on his time with Montreal.
Needless to say, it was all positive vibes.
"When I first talked to my agent and Montreal was interested, he told me I should go, and he was right," praised Kovalchuk, who signed a one-year, two-way contract on January 3 after things didn't pan out with the Los Angeles Kings. "It was one of the best decisions of my life that I've made hockey-wise. I was here for two months, but I feel like I was here for so long."
While he struggled to put up points of late, Kovalchuk certainly enjoyed some success on the ice since moving north of the border.
The 13-year NHL veteran registered six goals and 13 points in 22 games, and three of his markers were game-winners. His plus-6 differential wasn't too shabby, either.
And he proved to be an extremely valuable asset in the locker room as well, instantly earning the respect of his teammates and being a go-to guy for the youngsters on the roster like Nick Suzuki and Victor Mete.
"It was so much fun. We played some big games. We lost some games we should've won. We went through everything, but we went through everything together. It was a very short time, but a lot of things were happening. It was fun, and I wouldn't change one second," insisted Kovalchuk, who relished the opportunity to play in the Montreal spotlight. "I've got a lot of good memories. There are a lot of good people here. I'm going to miss them, but I wish them all the best the rest of the way."
His favorite memory was without a doubt the come-from-behind win over the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs on February 8 at the Bell Centre.
After former Canadiens defenseman Marco Scandella scored the game-tying goal with 2:33 remaining in regulation, it was Kovalchuk who sealed the 2-1 victory in the extra frame to send the crowd into a frenzy.
The way Montrealers embraced him from start to finish meant the world to him.
"I sent a little message on Instagram when the team posted the picture in French [after the trade] to just say thanks for everything. It's a great place to play," said Kovalchuk. "It's not goodbye, for sure."
Admittedly, Kovalchuk is leaving the door open for a possible return to Montreal this summer, if he remains unsigned.
We'll just have to wait and see what happens come July.
"When I'll be a free agent, it's one of the destinations that will be on my mind, because the fans here, the players, the younger players, the direction this team is going, I really like that a lot," stated Kovalchuk. "It's like a family here. All the people care. The staff, the coaching staff, they're all close, along with the management. Geoff [Molson] is with the team all the time. It says a lot."
Video: Ilya Kovalchuk on his time in Montreal
Speaking of family, Kovalchuk's sons, Philipp and Artem, wouldn't mind calling the city home next season.
When they visited earlier this month, along with the rest of the family, they were adamant about remaining in the area.
"You guys saw that they were having so much fun here," mentioned Kovalchuk, referencing, among other things, the skating session the Kovalchuks enjoyed at Verdun's Willibrord Park that eventually went viral on social media. "And the boys, they wanted to stay here. They said: "Tell mom that we want to stay here and let the girls go back to L.A.""
In the meantime, the former first-overall selection is committed to helping his good buddy, Alexander Ovechkin, and the rest of the Capitals battle for their second Stanley Cup in three years.
It's one piece of hardware that has eluded Kovalchuk and he desperately wants to hoist it.
"They're already good everywhere, but it's a good opportunity. I already know a lot of guys there. They're obviously looking to go all the way, so hopefully we will do some damage in the playoffs," said Kovalchuk. "The Stanley Cup is the main factor. Like I said from Day One when I came back to the NHL, that's my dream. You never know, but you just need to work hard."
It wouldn't surprise Kovalchuk to see Claude Julien's troops in the postseason picture in early April, especially with the way they've played over the last two games.
He fully expects them to continue to wage a serious battle for a coveted playoff berth.
"They're going to push all the way. I know that. I really know that because that's in that room, and that's what we were talking about every day, every meeting," said Kovalchuk. "There's not one quitter there, so they're going to push to the end, especially in front of that crowd. They have to."
As for the expensive watch Kovalchuk gifted to defenseman Brett Kulak in exchange for passing along his Number 17 jersey, it will remain in Kulak's possession.
"I'm not going to take that back," joked Kovalchuk. "That's all his. I hope it's a good memory."
And his message to potential free agents who might be shying away from signing with the Canadiens for one reason or another…
"They're wrong," concluded Kovalchuk. "They should consider that place because it's one of the best places to play."