Acquired on Sunday night in a trade with Montreal, Kovalchuk arrived in Washington on Monday and had dinner with some of his new teammates on Monday night. At Tuesday's morning skate, he took line rushes on the right side of a unit with Carl Hagelin and Lars Eller, his linemates for his Washington debut tonight.
"It's great," says Kovalchuk of his new environment. "I'm excited, I'm ready to go. I think we have a great team, and we just need to get ready for the playoffs."
After a rocky start to the season with Los Angeles, Kovalchuk's contract was terminated in mid-December, and he became a free agent. Just after the turn of the calendar, he signed a contract for the league minimum ($700,000) with Montreal. Over the last two months, he has rejuvenated his career to the point where the Canadiens were able to get a third-round pick in exchange for the 36-year-old winger.
"It's a great place to play; there are great fans there, great teammates, the management," says Kovalchuk, asked what made Montreal such a good fit for him. "It's like a big family. I've heard a lot of good stuff about the Capitals too, and I'm pretty sure here it's like a family as well. It's a huge part of a winning team, you need to have great communication with each other."
Video: Ilya Kovalchuk | February 25
"He made a statement with his play in Montreal," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, a teammate of Kovalchuk's when the latter was a rookie in Atlanta in 2001-02. "I think that's what we're hoping for, that those games [our] management watched all of them closely to see how he would react to going through a situation where his contract was done in L.A., and where he ended up and what was going to happen to his career.
"I think we should expect some of the same type of results that he provided in Montreal. He played on their second line primarily and on their top power play, so that's not where we're going to have him; he will play on our third line and on our second power play and then we'll go from there. But I think his two-way play was one of the things that kind of pushed us over the edge with him. Not only was he a scoring threat, but his improved two-way play, his leadership with his team. Brian and his staff did a lot of research - as we did with the coaches there in Montreal, and they spoke very highly of how he conducted himself and how he went about business."
Although he is no longer the player who rolled up 417 goals and averaged a point per game during his first 11 seasons in the NHL, Kovalchuk has shown the ability to be a useful and productive player in the middle of a team's lineup. He had 16 goals in 64 games with Los Angeles last season and has nine goals in 39 NHL games with the Kings and Canadiens this season.
"I'm a little older now," he says, "but the league is changing obviously, a lot of new faces, a lot of new, young players who are becoming superstars. I just try to do my thing. I try to keep myself in good shape, work hard and try to do my thing."
"His résumé speaks for itself," says Reirden. "But the skill set that he brings, a hunger to try to win the game's ultimate prize, and his ability to move up and down our lineup and add an additional scoring threat.
"We're really excited to have him. He has played in big games before in different situations - five Olympics and a lot of playoff experience as well. He is going to add a lot to our group."
Video: Reirden Pregame | February 25
With 12 points (six goals, six assists) in his last 15 games, Hagelin is one of Washington's hottest forwards at the moment. Eller is in the midst of a career year and is a point shy of matching his single-season high of 38. Kovalchuk should be a good fit on that line, and with Richard Panik moving out of the right wing slot on the third line and into the left wing slot on the fourth, Panik may be more effective on his natural (left) side, and he may be able to finish some of the numerous scoring chances the fourth line has been able to create this season.
"I think he is just really excited about the end game here and what our team can do, not necessarily what he does individually." says Reirden. "And that's the exciting thing to hear about him joining us."
Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov is nine years younger than Kovalchuk, but he grew up watching him and is excited to have him as a teammate. The two worked together on Washington's second power play unit at Tuesday's morning skate.
"It's a big privilege to share the ice with him, especially for players of my generation," says Kuznetsov. "We've been seeing him a lot playing for the national team, and he has always been the type of guy that you're watching a lot.
"He will be huge for us inside the team for sure, in the locker room. He is the type of guy that is going to bring a lot of positive energy.
With Alex Ovechkin scoring his 700th career goal on Saturday in New Jersey, an uplifting win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, and the acquisition of Kovalchuk on Sunday night, things have been trending upward for the Caps over the last few days. But Washington has only three wins in its last 10 games (3-6-1), it hasn't won consecutive contests in nearly a month, and it has won only two of its last seven (2-4-1) on home ice.
The Caps know they've got some work to do to get their game up to their standards, and to playoff standards. They've got 20 games in 40 nights ahead of them, and the goal is to do just that.
Video: Pregame | February 25
"We'll see, I hope so," says Kuznetsov. "We've been struggling a little bit in some areas, but at the same time I'm happy it's happened. We can get things tied up and we can get the team closer. When things are going best, I believe that you're not growing, you know? You need those type of moments and then you get out of your comfortable zone a little bit. You don't start bitching at each other; it's the opposite, you start getting close to each other. You start caring about the players who are maybe not having the best game, but you try to help them and at the same time, that's how you grow up."
The Ovi And Kovy Show - Ovechkin and Kovalchuk have been acquainted for many years, since both were in their teens. Kovalchuk is two and a half years older than Ovechkin, and he was the first player chosen - by the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) - in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, as Ovechkin was three drafts later. The two have always been close, and they've always talked about being teammates someday. They've played together many times on the Russian national team, but they're excited to be together here in Washington and to be pursuing a Stanley Cup together.
During Kovalchuk's years with the Thrashers, he was a noted Caps killer. He spent three seasons in the league before Ovechkin's arrival in 2005-06, and Kovalchuk netted eight goals and racked up 17 points in 15 games against Washington to that point of his career. During the entirety of his career with Atlanta, he notched 24 goals and 52 points in 43 games against the Caps.
Everyone knows that Ovechkin debuted in the NHL with a two-goal game in a win over Columbus on Oct. 5, 2005, but few remember that the Caps then played a home-and-home set with the Thrashers on Oct. 7-8. That should have been the first meeting between the two players in the NHL, but it wasn't; Kovalchuk was in the midst of a contract holdout at the outset of the 2005-06 season. He signed on Oct. 8, but didn't play that night.
Ovechkin and Kovalchuk faced one another in an NHL game for the first time on Nov. 4, 2005 in Washington, a 3-2 Caps shootout victory, but neither player factored into the scoring. On Dec. 22, 2005 in Atlanta, they met again, and this time both players scored in a 6-5 Washington win. Ovechkin had a goal and three assists for the first four-point game of his NHL career that night, while Kovalchuk netted the Thrashers' first goal of the game.
Atlanta dealt Kovachuk to New Jersey on Feb. 4, 2010, a day before the Thrashers visited the District on the Friday night leading into the famous "Snow-vechkin" game against Pittsburgh on Sunday of that weekend, and in the midst of what is still the longest winning streak in Washington's franchise history, a 14-game run.
Now, just over a decade later, the two are teammates. They're the two oldest players on the league's oldest team, and Kovalchuk is one of only 16 skaters in the league who is 36 or older.
"I'm excited for him and excited for the opportunity," says Ovechkin. "He's a good fit for our team, he brings some depth, brings lots of options to play with, so it's good."
"You never know what's going to happen," says Ovechkin. "But yeah, sometimes during the summer we would [say], 'Yeah, it would be nice if you were going to be one day on the Washington Capitals team. But with the salary cap and all those different things, it's a different thing."
"Since we were 13 years old," responds Kovalchuk, when asked how long he and Ovechkin have talked about being teammates. "We played together on the national team, but never for the same team. Usually, we battled against each other. But it's always nice when you're a little older to get a chance to play together, for sure."
Video: Rinkside Update | Ilya Kovalchuk
That chance comes tonight. Ovechkin is a veteran of 1,145 NHL games and he played 68 games in Russia's KHL during NHL lockouts in 2004-05 and 2012-13. Kovalchuk has played in 919 NHL games, and he has skated in 362 KHL contests during lockouts and a five-year stretch where he played there before returning to the NHL last season, winning two championships with St. Petersburg SKA in 2015 and 2017.
In The Nets - Coming off a strong 32-save outing in a 5-3 win over the Penguins on Sunday afternoon, Braden Holtby will be seeking his first set of consecutive wins since Dec. 3-6. In his last six games - including one relief appearance - Holtby is 2-2-1 with a 2.61 GAA and a .918 save pct.
Lifetime against Winnipeg, Holtby is 10-3-2 with two shutouts, a 2.36 GAA and a .926 save pct. in 15 appearances.
Backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit will start for Winnipeg. On the season, he is 6-7-0 with a 3.32 GAA and an .893 save pct. He lost his lone appearance career against the Caps in a shootout, yielding just one goal.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Jets to look on Tuesday night in Washington when they meet for the first time this season, starting off a home-and-home set this week:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 17-Kovalchuk
14-Panik, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
58-Harkins, 55-Scheifele, 26-Wheeler
81-Connor, 9-Copp, 29-Laine
27-Ehlers, 20-Eakin, 28-Roslovic
82-Appleton, 21-Shore, 57-Bourque
5-Sbisa (upper body)
17-Lowry (upper body)
18-Little (upper body)
44-Morrissey (upper body)
85-Perreault (upper body)