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Kovalev taking flight with Montreal

by Adam Kimelman

Alex Kovalev took a look in the mirror and decided he hated what he saw after last season. Watch Alex Kovalev highlights
After suffering through the worst season of his hockey life, Alex Kovalev took a look in the mirror and decided he hated what he saw. Things, he knew, had to change.

“It’s like, you hate everything about your apartment, you want to redo it because every time you go back home, you’re sick of it,” the Montreal Canadiens winger told “So you throw everything outside and buy new furniture. That’s kind of what I did. I threw out the old Alex Kovalev and kind of brought in a different person and play a different game.”

That different game has resulted in a career renaissance for the 34-year-old Russian right wing. With 29 goals and 68 points through 66 games, he’s already eclipsed last season’s desultory numbers. He’s on pace for 36 goals and 84 points, which would be his best results since the 2000-01 season.

He currently leads the Canadiens in goals, points, power-play goals (16), and his team-best plus-9 rating stands in stark contrast to his minus-19 last season.

“He’s a great leader this year,” said teammate Steve Begin. “He’s healthy this year, he wants to play. He wants to be the best player. He knows he’s the best player and he wants to be on top. It’s a plus to have him in great shape for us. We’re happy. It’s just a bonus to have him at his best. And even when he’s not at his best, he’s still one of the best players.”

The key for Kovalev making a better present and future for himself and the Canadiens was going into his past.

Over the summer, Kovalev rewound his personal highlight reel, looking to see what was missing from his game that caused him to plummet to 18 goals, 47 points and that eyesore of a minus-19 rating last season.

“We all have ups and downs in a career,” he said. “It was one of those years that was really bad for me. Just completely lost. It was a long summer for us. I’ve done a lot of things, some (self) scouting. I went back to my videos, watched videos from my first year, second year, even junior tapes, how I was moving around, how I was skating. What things was I missing in my game? I studied my old times a lot.”

So what did the videos show?

“I think when you get to a certain stage in your career, you think you’ve learned so much, you know so much, you start playing by experience,” said Kovalev. “Maybe you stop skating because you think, I know where I should go or where I should be at a certain time, where the puck is going to come, kind of stop playing your game. You stop moving. You just try to find the right spot at the right time. But if you keep skating, you’re always dangerous, and that’s what I went back to. Try to control the puck as much as possible, draw a lot of attention, try to make plays. But the main idea when you move around, when you control the puck, make plays, that’s how you become dangerous. That’s the main thing I added this year.”

“I think a lot of things (changed), his attitude,” said Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau. “Not that he had a bad attitude. I think there were a lot of things written about him last year that made him look bad, but it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t his year. In the course of a career, there’s always one of those years where nothing works, or you don’t want to push it too hard. I think this summer he really talked with himself. Not being asked to play for the World Championships for Russia was hard on him. He came in this year, wanted to prove to us and to the people around the hockey world that he was still a really good hockey player, and since Day 1 he’s been really good.”

With 29 goals and 68 points through 66 games, Alex Kovalev already has eclipsed last season’s desultory numbers.

Also on the rise are Kovalev’s linemates, center Tomas Plekanec and left wing Andrei Kostitsyn. In his first full NHL season, Kostitsyn, 23, is fourth on the team with 20 goals, while Plekanec, 25, is fifth on the Canadiens with 35 assists, and is second to Kovalev with 24 goals and 59 points.

“They have so much talent,” Kovalev said of his linemates. “Over the years I’ve played with many guys and I can tell who’s talented and who’s not. Sometimes you see a player playing and you think all this guys needs is little things, little details in his game and he’ll be a completely different player, so that’s what I’m trying to do, use my experience. I’ve played with some star players -- Mario (Lemieux), Gretz (Wayne Gretzky), Mess (Mark Messier) -- and there’s a lot of things you learn from them and some things you can pass along to younger guys, things you experienced with them. That’s what I’m trying to do. We play on the same team and to get better, that’s the only way we can do it.”

Carbonneau said it’s not just his young linemates that Kovalev is helping.

“I think he’s spreading his joy to the whole team,” said Carbonneau. “It’s always fun when you have veteran players that will show the ropes to the kids. They come in and work hard in the gym, work hard on the ice to get better. That’s the reason they’re good, they work hard a lot. It’s fun for (young players) to come up and see those guys, because they don’t have a choice, they have to follow and keep working hard.

“He comes to the rink, he’s always happy, he always wants to talk. He wants to play every game and he wants to be the best player on the ice every day.”

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