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Kovalev hoping to shine in Ottawa

by Karl Samuelson
Imagine Jarome Iginla playing for the Edmonton Oilers. Think about Ryan Getzlaf skating with the San Jose Sharks or Martin St. Louis in a Florida Panthers jersey.

It sounds crazy -- a marquee player joining an arch-rival club. But that's exactly what happened when Alexei Kovalev became a free agent this past summer. Rather than extending his tenure with the Montreal Canadiens, he joined the team's closest rival -- the Ottawa Senators.

Kovalev revived his career in Montreal following a trade from the New York Rangers in March 2004. Known affectionately by Montreal fans as "L'artiste" due to his incredible artistry on the ice, the 36 year-old Kovalev was the celebrated team's top scorer last season with 65 points, including 12 multi-point games. Kovalev was named to the 2009 NHL All-Star Game starting lineup and thrilled his hometown supporters by earning game MVP honors.

And last season was no fluke. The season before (2007-08), Kovalev led the Canadiens with 35 goals and 49 assists and was an impressive plus-18. He finished first in the NHL with 47 power-play points and often played the spoiler in games against the Senators.

"When I coached and watched our team play in the last couple of years against Montreal, every time he came on the ice I was scared to death that he was going to be the difference in the game," Ottawa General Manager Bryan Murray said. "And on some nights he certainly was the difference. Alex is a guy that when he is going, he can be a star and help teams win games. I think he is a big-time player."

Habs fans thought he was a big-time player, too. A legion of them held a spirited rally outside the Bell Centre in Montreal demanding Montreal GM Bob Gainey name Kovalev the next team captain. Instead, within hours the Senators signed the unrestricted free agent to a two-year contract.

Some free agents sign with another team to escape the limelight. Others move to capture it. Kovalev was often under the microscope in Montreal and that won't change in the hockey hotbed of Ottawa.

"I think he likes the spotlight," Murray said. "There are people who are very judgmental of every player and more often than not find fault rather than the good things. Kovalev is a guy who makes players around him a lot better. He is a big time playmaker, he is real strong on the puck, and when he gets a chance to play on the power play, he makes the power play work. He's got a big shot. I think he is one of the most exciting players in the League."

Nobody ever has questioned Kovalev when it comes to the excitement quotient. Some have questioned the consistency in his play -- or rather the lack of it at times over the course of his 17-year career with the Canadiens, Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Murray is not losing sleep about the consistency factor in Kovalev's game. In fact, he believes it's a myth.

"You always want your players to play 100 percent and that's difficult over 82 games," Murray said. "If you are judgmental then you can find a hole. (The critics) claim that Alex has been a little more inconsistent than he should be. I think the opposite. When he plays great, he can win a game for you. We have many real hard workers in this organization, guys that will compete for us every single night. But we need something special to go with that and this guy is a special player in that he's got the ability to make players around him better and he can score."

Kovalev is perplexed about certain labels that have been affixed to him and is determined to show the Senators that they have every reason to remain firm in their assessment of him as a dominant star in the League.

"There's been word going around the NHL that I am not consistent and I don't know where that comes from," said Kovalev, who has 945 points in 1,160 games through Oct. 27. "The second (rumor) is that I've always had trouble with the coaches. Well, I've never had trouble with my coaches. In the many situations I have been in, I have always tried to do my best. All I need from the coach is to explain the situation. If I am doing something wrong, tell me, because we are all trying to achieve the same goal.

"Night after night I compete. I make changes in my game depending on the team you are playing against and the situation the team is in. Sometimes the team is not winning and you're not playing well and you try to change the situation yourself. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

"I will do my best (in Ottawa). Sometimes it might not look too pretty and sometimes it might look good, but I will tell you one thing, I will compete as hard as I can."

Murray is not concerned.

"Alex is an exciting player, a very talented individual who has played in the League a long time and is very familiar with the expectations that he brings for himself and for this hockey team," said Murray. "We are looking (forward to) a much-improved year, a fun year and an exciting year in this city and Alex will without a doubt add to that as one outstanding individual."

Kovalev understands that he had the confidence of Senators management from Day 1. His new teammates and the coaching staff respect him as they would any great player. Most say they are thoroughly relieved that they don't have to play against him anymore.

But will Kovalev ever enjoy the acclaim from Ottawa fans that so recently was bestowed upon him by thousands of supporters in Montreal?

"It's up to me to bring them onside," Kovalev said. "The only way I can do it is to play my best."

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