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Kovalchuk satisfied with Canadiens debut despite loss

Forward took little while to find rhythm, will give fans 'more reasons to cheer'

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Time was winding down in the second period at Bell Centre on Monday when the chant began from the upper reaches of the arena:

"Ko-vy! Ko-vy! Ko-vy!"

On the rink, Ilya Kovalchuk heard the voices.

"It was nice," Kovalchuk said following his debut with the Montreal Canadiens, a 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. "That gave me little goose bumps. I appreciate that. But I'll give them more reasons to cheer."

Kovalchuk played 19:25, skated 25 shifts, had an assist on Ben Chiarot's third-period goal -- which brought about the loudest cheer of the night -- had four shots, a blocked shot and, perhaps surprisingly, a game-high six hits.

He even played a little impromptu goalie, standing in the Canadiens net with Carey Price pulled late in the game for an extra skater.

Kovalchuk rated his debut with his new team as a qualified success, reasonably happy with his effort in his first game since he played Nov. 9 at Bell Centre, then a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

"I was feeling good the second half (of the game), in the first I was a little nervous and it took me a few shifts to get in the rhythm because I didn't play for two months," Kovalchuk said. "The result isn't there, but we [fought] today. It was frustrating, Price gave us some unbelievable saves in the second period and kept us in the game. A few little mistakes cost us."

Video: WPG@MTL: Chiarot wires wrister home for second goal

Indeed, the frustration deepens for the Canadiens, who are 0-5-1 in their past six games and sit six points behind the Florida Panthers for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. 

Montreal next plays at the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-D, TSN2, RDS, NHL.TV).

Kovalchuk has been a popular topic in Montreal since signing a one-year, two-way contract last Friday worth $700,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 if he's assigned to Laval of the American Hockey League.

The move came after he was a healthy scratch in his final 18 games with the Kings before he was placed on unconditional waivers Dec. 18 and had his contract terminated.

As a result, the 36-year-old forward, who is in his 13th NHL season, has been described as a low-risk acquisition. The Canadiens are hoping he'll provide some offensive punch, especially on the power play, on a roster that's depleted by injury; four of the team's top nine forwards -- Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron and Joel Armia -- are currently on injured reserve.

On Monday, 2:28 of Kovalchuk's ice time was on the power play, second only to Max Domi. At even strength, he played on the team's top line with center Philip Danault and left wing Tomas Tatar.

There's some question as to where Kovalchuk will slot in once the injured players return, but that isn't a concern for now, not with the ailing Canadiens skidding badly.

"It's easy to play with good players, but we've still got a long way to go," Kovalchuk said. "Our power play, we tried to pass a little too much. We have to be more simple, shoot the puck. It's a learning process, it's going to take a little time, but coaches explained to me what they're looking for with their system. That's what I tried to do."

Kovalchuk's first game in a Canadiens jersey was the most highly anticipated debut of a Montreal player nicknamed "Kovy" since Alex Kovalev, who arrived in a trade with the New York Rangers on March 2, 2004. Kovalev would become a popular player with Canadiens fans over his five seasons, scoring 264 points (103 goals, 161 assists) in 314 games.

Kovalchuk, perhaps coincidentally the 17th Canadiens skater onto the ice for warmups on Monday, has good-naturedly bought the use of No. 17 here, the only sweater he'd worn for his 897 NHL games prior to his Montreal debut. It was the jersey number of late, legendary Hall of Fame forward Valeri Kharlamov, the favorite of Kovalchuk's father. Kharlamov first came to prominence in North America at the Montreal Forum on Sept. 2, 1972, scoring twice for the Soviet Union in a 7-3 victory in Game 1 to begin the historic eight-game Summit Series.

Canadiens defenseman Brett Kulak happily switched from his No. 17 to No. 77, "surrendering" it on Saturday. The following day, Kulak was given an engraved Rolex from Kovalchuk as a thank you. 

With 860 points (436 goals, 424 assists), Kovalchuk is bound to learn about the roots of his new team, the history all around him. He shouldn't have been within a country mile of knowing how many Canadiens had worn No. 17 before him, but his guess of 55 when asked Monday night was very near the actual 52.

Now, with one game under his belt, Kovalchuk is looking ahead, buoyed by the support he's received from his team and its fans.

"It's been an unbelievable few days so far and the way the fans respond and the guys in the locker room, I appreciate it very much," he said. "It's very important for me.

"I like the way we fought today. It says we never give up so it's a bump in the road. We're going to keep working. Tomorrow is a new day and a must win for us." 

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