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From drought to milestone for Kovalev

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts while we await the start of the Mats Sundin Era in Vancouver:

He's still got it -- Earlier this week a scoring milestone was the last thing on the mind of Alex Kovalev. The veteran winger simply was trying to snap out of the worst goal-scoring slump of his career.

That happened Tuesday when Kovalev scored in a loss at Carolina, and he got an even more satisfying score Thursday night. By putting the puck past Antero Niittymaki in the second period, Kovalev helped the Habs to a 5-2 defeat of the Philadelphia Flyers. He also recorded his 900th NHL point.

"I scored that first goal and now I've got 900 points," said Kovalev, who is wearing the captain's "C" while Saku Koivu is sidelined. "I can't even think about it. It's hard to really imagine that I've been in the league 16 years and I've got 900 points. It probably takes a couple of days to really realize it."

Kovalev, who registered career highs of 44 goals and 95 points for Pittsburgh in 2000-01, hadn't lit the lamp in 19 games before Tuesday. Assisting on his goal was a familiar face who hadn't seen the Bell Centre ice in some time -- defenseman Mike Komisarek.

"There's no feeling like being on the ice and getting in the mix of things and stirring things up a little," said Komisarek, who had missed the past 16 games due to a shoulder injury and helped serve as an assistant coach during Montreal's recent homestand.

Jaroslav Halak continued to shine in net, making 29 saves in his fifth consecutive start and bringing an end to the Flyers' streak of seven games without a regulation loss (6-0-1).

"You can't win them all," Flyers center Jeff Carter said. "We got off to a slow start, but we picked it up there as the game rolled on and we got some chances. We were shooting high and wide a lot and their goalie played well. That's about it."

Everyone plays -- It's not often all 40 players to dress for a game get to play, but most games aren't like the one played Thursday at TD Banknorth Garden.

The Boston Bruins jumped to a 5-1 lead early in the second and looked like they would steamroll their way to yet another victory, but the Toronto Maple Leafs had other thoughts. They twice rallied to within a goal before the Bruins held on for an 8-5 win.

After the Leafs pulled to within 5-4 and then 6-5 heading into the third, Boston coach Claude Julien replaced starting goalie Tim Thomas with Manny Fernandez. Meanwhile, Curtis Joseph already had relieved Vesa Toskala in the Toronto net, meaning everyone wearing a uniform made it on the ice. Fernandez had the most success, stopping all 13 shots against him.

"Fernandez came in and made the difference in the game," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "Obviously we didn't start the way we wanted to. It was obviously a good effort to get back into the game, but when you get down that many goals, it's tough."

Phil Kessel scored twice to extend his point streak to 16 games, and now has 21 goals in 31 games, but it may have been Fernandez who made the biggest impact just by coming in and restoring order to what had become a barnburner.

"Sometimes a change like that kind of calms everybody down," Fernandez said. "When there's a lot of goals scored, you just hold your stick a little tighter, try to do too much. Sometimes coaches use that (a goalie change) as a motivator for the team, and I think that's what happened."

Not to be forgotten -- Alex Ovechkin is the superstar whose name is known all over the League. Alexander Semin has been stating his case as a rising star. But what about teammate and fellow countryman Viktor Kozlov?

Kozlov made his presence known by scoring the Capitals' first two goals and assisting on Ovechkin's tally later in a 4-2 win against the St. Louis Blues.

"He's the unsung Russian," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He just goes out and does his business."

Kozlov, who scored a career-high 25 goals for the Islanders two seasons ago, now has seven this season. He was more concerned with the Caps keeping positive momentum on home ice by improving to 13-1-1 at Verizon Center.

"As long as we kept the winning streak going and got the two points, everyone's happy," Kozlov said. "We can't relax. We have to stay focused and play the same way."

Simeon Varlamov managed to keep his focus despite playing just his second NHL game and having his father Alex was watching him play in the NHL for the first time. He improved to 2-0-0 by making 29 saves.

"I try not to think about it, but it's great his dream was realized, his dream to see me play in the NHL. It was my dream as well," the Caps' youngest Russian said through an interpreter. "He's probably the happiest man in the world right now."

Smooth move -- Joe Corvo put on such a show in scoring the overtime winner that by the time he got around to shooting the puck, the opposing goaltender wasn't even in the picture.

"I thought there'd be a goalie in there," Corvo said after he gave the Carolina Hurricanes a 2-1 win against the Florida Panthers with 43.3 seconds remaining in the extra period. "I don't know where he went."

After taking a feed from Ray Whitney in the high slot, the offensive defenseman faked his way around David Booth of the Panthers, then backhanded the puck high and between Gregory Campbell and goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who had been deked out of the play.

Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour picked up a secondary assist on the goal, which brought the house down at RBC Center and helped the team gain a point for the sixth time in seven games since Paul Maurice returned behind the bench (3-1-3).

"I think everyone thought he (Corvo) was going to shoot it, and then he tried to fake," Brind'Amour said. "And then I thought he was going to fall down, and I thought their guy was going to go the other way.

"Then he got it and he made one move, and I thought he was going to shoot it. And I was in front, just saying, 'Come on, put it at the net,' and he just walked down the defenseman and made a great move on the goalie."

Can't catch a break -- Losers of 16 of their last 18 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning have seen points slip away in more ways than they would care to recall. But their frustration level may have reached new heights after a 2-1 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Milan Hejduk had the only goal of the penalty-shot tiebreaker, but he didn't have to put the puck in the net to be awarded the goal. That's because Lightning goalie Mike Smith lost his stick as he scrambled to try to deny Hejduk's opportunity -- and after huddling together, the officiating crew ruled Smith had thrown his stick. According to the rules, that allowed them to award a goal.

"I know it's a quick game and things happen fast, but there's four refs on the ice, not one," Smith said. "They have the angles covered. I made the save and then I had to drop the stick because my stick was going to come up in the air. You can't make that call at that point in the game. The save was already made.

"I guess if you're winning, if you're up in the standings, those calls seem to go your way."

Lost in the controversial finish was a glimmer of light provided by Jeff Halpern, who not only played his first game since reconstructive knee surgery in June but scored Tampa's only goal.
"I scored that first goal and now I've got 900 points. I can't even think about it. It's hard to really imagine that I've been in the league 16 years and I've got 900 points. It probably takes a couple of days to really realize it." -- Canadiens forward Alexei Kovalev
"I felt good," Halpern said. "Pretty nervous before the game. I'm not exactly where I want to be as far as the way I played, but I was pretty happy to be back."

Like he never left -- The Pittsburgh Penguins made sure to give goalie Marc-Andre Fleury plenty of offensive support in his return from a five-week absence. But Fleury held up his end of the bargain with a 28-save effort, showing little rust from time missed due to a groin injury.

Evgeni Malkin led the way with 2 goals and 2 assists and the Penguins won for only the second time in their last six games by doubling up the Atlanta Thrashers, 6-3, at Philips Arena.

"He was phenomenal," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said of Fleury. "He made key save after key save. I'm more than pleased with his performance."

Added Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby: "He was sharp, especially after being off a month."

The Penguins survived Fleury's extended absence thanks to the capable play of veteran Dany Sabourin and rookie John Curry, but were excited to have back the goalie who led them to last season's Stanley Cup Final. The stakes weren't very high by comparison Thursday, but Fleury admitted the butterflies were still there.

"I was a little nervous, but after a couple of shots I was OK," he said. "I was relieved when we got the first two goals. After that, I didn't think about it much."

A complete effort -- Despite leading the Central Division and having the second-best record in the Western Conference, it's been a bit of an uneven season for the Detroit Red Wings, whose defense and goaltending haven't been quite as stingy as the group that lifted the Stanley Cup in June.

The Wings knew they'd need all facets of their game clicking in order to beat the current NHL leaders when the San Jose Sharks came to town, and that's exactly what happened. Pavel Datsyuk had 2 goals and 2 assists, Ty Conklin stopped all 24 shots he faced and Detroit delighted the Joe Louis Arena faithful with a 6-0 demolition.

"So far, it's our first real good game," said Datsyuk. "I think, so far, it's our best game. Now we just need to keep going, keep going, grind like that, play our game."

Conklin was steady in the early going as the Sharks put pressure on, but the Wings grabbed control with a pair of goals late in the first period.

"I think we all are confident in here," said Conklin. "I think we all have a strong belief that we're one of the top clubs, for sure, in the League."

For the Sharks, it was only their fourth regulation loss this season, but their second defeat in as many nights, after Columbus beat them 2-1 in overtime Wednesday.

"We can use the excuse that we had three games in four nights, but that's just an excuse," Sharks forward Ryan Clowe said. "Just embarrassing to play these guys ... like we're happy with ourselves."

Key addition -- It might not have been the biggest news around the League when the Phoenix Coyotes acquired Joakim Lindstrom from the Anaheim organization earlier this month, but the 25-year-old forward is fitting nicely on a line with young Kyle Turris.

"Lindstrom and him seem to feed off each other," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said after Turris scored both goals Thursday in a 2-1 win against the Nashville Predators at Arena. "They play a similar style, move the puck to the open man, go to open areas to get pucks back. It's a nice combination right now and they're doing a nice job for us."
"I think we all are confident in here. I think we all have a strong belief that we're one of the top clubs, for sure, in the league." -- Red Wings goalie Ty Conklin
The score sheet might say Lindstrom didn't have any assists on the Turris goals, but Turris himself would tell you otherwise. It was Lindstrom who told him that Predators goalie Dan Ellis tends to come far out of his crease and for Turris to wait for him to make the first move. The advice paid off in the form of a breakaway goal with 9.7 seconds left in the first period.

"That was the first thing I thought about coming down the center," Turris said.

The two-goal game was his first in the NHL. The third selection in the 2007 Entry Draft played three games late last season for Phoenix and then earned a roster spot in training camp at just 19.

"I feel the best I've felt all year," Turris said. "I feel great, I have my legs under me and I'm feeling very confident."

Heating up -- Having lost captain Brenden Morrow for the season due to injury, the Dallas Stars need other players to step it up. They've received quite the pleasant surprise offensively from Loui Eriksson.

Less than halfway through the season, Eriksson already has a career-high 17 goals after notching his first career hat trick in Thursday night's 6-5 shootout victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

''He's one of those guys who you look to do the job, and he comes through no matter what,'' Stars coach Dave Tippett said. ''We had him penciled in for 20-plus (goals). We knew he had the potential and he's doing a heck of a job. He's had timely goals that have given us life.''

Eriksson wowed the American Airlines Center crowd by scoring the Stars' first three goals Thursday, one game after he had both goals in a 2-1 overtime win against Phoenix.

''I'm trying to be more (in front of the net) and the puck is going in right now,'' Eriksson said.

After blowing a two-goal lead in the third period, the Stars almost didn't make it to the shootout when Manny Malhotra deflected a puck past Marty Turco early in overtime. But after a video review it was ruled Malhotra kicked the puck in and the goal was disallowed.

"We got a lucky break in overtime, but we found a way to win," said Brad Richards, who scored game-winner in the shootout. "Tonight it was nice to get rewarded and help the team out. The last two weeks have been hard."

Material from wire services and team online media was used in this report.

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