MONTREAL - Alex Kovalev took his first step towards returning to the Canadiens lineup Tuesday morning in Pittsburgh after undergoing successful arthroscopic surgery on the most-talked-about right knee in the NHL right now.
The procedure was performed by the familiar steady hand of Charles Burke, the Penguins team doctor who had treated Kovalev during his five years in Pittsburgh. Burke was also the surgeon who performed Kovalev's identical procedure on the same right knee back in October of 2001.
"The surgery went well with no serious complications," said Canadiens team doctor David Mulder, who sat in on the procedure that took place at the University of Pittsburgh. "The best way to put it is that it didn't go as well as it possibly could but by the same token it was definitely far from the worst case scenario."
While the surgery was minor compared to more severe types of knee damage commonly seen in sports, Kovalev was still put under an anesthetic for the procedure.
"As I had outlined when we announced that Alex had decided to go through with the surgery, fluid and debris was drained from the knee," explained Mulder. "The best way I can describe it is that it's like Alex having had loose gravel floating around in his knee.
"Once Dr. Burke got inside there was a lot of fluid which we expected, but the loose fragments of knee cartilage that were discovered caused the fluid to be much thicker and gelatinous than anticipated," said Mulder moments before the Canadiens took to the ice on Tuesday night against the Panthers. "It was the same procedure Dr. Burke performed four years ago. As he did back in 2001, Dr. Burke drilled small holes in the remaining cartilage to encourage or stimulate the growth and expansion of new cartilage."
Prior to making his preliminary prediction of a 3-to-4 week absence for Kovalev on Monday, Mulder did say he would have a clearer picture of what lied ahead for No. 27 once the procedure was complete. With the surgery now in the books, Mulder felt more comfortable with a forecast of 4-to-8 weeks for the big Russian's return to action. In 2001, Kovalev was out of Pittsburgh's lineup for a total of 13 games between Oct.16 and Nov. 10.
"Dr. Burke wanted Alex to remain in Pittsburgh for the next couple of days for observation before returning to Montreal, which is perfectly normal," said Mulder. "The timetable remains the same at this point however. Alex will do nothing but rest for the next two weeks and then we will see how the knee is coming along in advance of him starting his rehabilitation."
A relieved Alex Kovalev is said to be resting comfortably and chomping at the bit to return to the Canadiens lineup.
"He was upbeat and glad to have the surgery behind him," said Mulder. "The decision to go through with the surgery when he did was absolutely the right one. Alex has been here before and we will make certain to give his knee the time it needs to heal."
With a mid-to-late December return still a possibility for Kovalev, Canadiens fans may yet still find a 40-goal scorer stuffed in their stockings on Christmas morning.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com