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Surprising sources carry Canadiens back to top

by Dan Rosen

A renaissance season from Alexei Kovalev - his 84 points in 82 games is the second-highest total in his career, and most since 2000-01 - helped Montreal to their first conference title since 1988-89
If the Montreal Canadiens had parted ways with Alex Kovalev over the summer, surely there would have been some folks happy to say good riddance to the Russian right wing.

Where are they now?

Perhaps the same critics that turned on Kovalev last season due to his sub-par performance – 49 points and a minus-17 rating in 77 games as Montreal missed the postseason – now are busy praising his superb effort this season.

Kovalev, at 35 years old, just put the finishing touches on his finest regular season since 2000-01. In doing so, he helped pilot Montreal’s journey back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, returning hope for a championship to one of hockey’s legendary cities.

The Canadiens, picked in the preseason to be an Eastern Conference also-ran, rode Kovalev, rookie goalie Carey Price, the outstanding defensive pair of Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek, and the best power play in the NHL to a Northeast Division title and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

“I don’t deny that I take a lot of pride in trying to prove people wrong, but I also knew that things had to happen at the start of this year to make that happen,” Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said. “We have been lucky because we haven’t had that many injuries. We haven’t had a slump.”

Kovalev hasn’t either.

He showed immediate signs of life with points in eight of 11 October games. By the end of the first month Kovalev had six goals and four assists, and Montreal was 6-2-3.

“When you have that free time in the summer to re-focus, there are a lot of things that go through your mind and you tend to work a little harder and work out a little different,” Carbonneau said. “Talking with Kovy, he looked at tapes of when he was a younger guy and what he used to do and how much he loved the game. Put that aside, it’s important to have that start to show that you did this (in the summer), and it’s working.”

Kovalev’s hot October play carried over into November, when he totaled 11 points in 14 games and earned the team’s Molson Cup Player of the Month award.

The award is determined by the nightly stars of the game, with a first-star gaining five points, a second-star getting three and a first-star one. Kovalev also won the award in December (14 points, plus-7), January (11 points, plus-7) and February (21 points in 14 games).

Yes, he was that good. So were his linemates, center Tomas Plekanec and left wing Andrei Kostitsyn. The trio, which combined for nine points in a 4-3 win against Ottawa on Feb. 5, surprisingly turned into one of the best lines in the NHL.

“I can’t say (Kovalev) had a different attitude or a better attitude, but he came in thinking, ‘I’m going to prove that I’m better than that,’ ” Carbonneau said. “The rest of the group has been better this year, too, so that took some pressure off.”

Outside of Kovalev’s consistently superior play and a power play that ranked first in the League basically all season, there were several seminal dates during the season. Perhaps none were more important than Oct. 10, Feb. 4 and Feb. 26.

All three were milestone moments for rookie goalie Carey Price.

Price made his highly anticipated NHL debut Oct. 10 with 26 saves in a 3-2 victory at Pittsburgh. However, he was shipped back to Hamilton of the AHL on Jan. 8 despite a 9-7-3.

After playing 10 games with the Bulldogs, who he led to the AHL’s Calder Cup last season, Price was summoned back to Montreal on Feb. 4. He returned to the lineup three nights later, but lost, 4-2, to Toronto.

Cristobal Huet and Price shared the net for the next nine games, but a plan was in place for Price eventually to take over full time. That plan was put into motion Feb. 26, when Gainey surprised the hockey world by dealing Huet to Washington.

Price, who everyone figured was the Habs’ goalie of the future, became their goalie of the present, too. He could relax because the job was his.

“He didn’t have to be Superman,” Carbonneau said. “He just had to be Carey Price.”

Price won four of his first five starts after the trade, bringing Montreal up to first in the Eastern Conference on March 1. The last time the Canadiens were conference leaders that late in a season was in 1993 – the year they last won the Stanley Cup.

If they are to again, the Price has to be right.

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