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Wednesday Night Hockey

Kovalchuk looking to score first goal for Capitals

Has one assist for Washington heading into 'Wednesday Night Hockey' against Flyers

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Ilya Kovalchuk feels more comfortable with the Washington Capitals after each game and each practice.

There's one thing missing, though.

"I want a goal," Kovalchuk said Tuesday. "So tomorrow I'll try hard."

Kovalchuk, who was acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 23, will play his fourth game with the Capitals when they host the Philadelphia Flyers on "Wednesday Night Hockey" at Capital One Arena (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS). 

The Capitals (40-19-6) lead the Flyers (38-20-7), who have won six in a row, by three points for first place in the Metropolitan Division and are looking to build on a 4-3 win at the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.

Kovalchuk had his first point with the Capitals with an assist on forward Alex Ovechkin's second goal Sunday, and he's beginning to fit in on and off the ice with his new teammates.

"I feel way more comfortable," the 36-year-old forward said. "A lot of new stuff at practice, games, little details. But the guys were great, the coaching staff was great, the fans. It's nice."

His transition has been easier because he already knew a few of the Capitals players, including Ovechkin. The two have been friends since they were teenagers growing up in Russia. Kovalchuk is one of five Russia-born players on the Capitals along with Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goalie Ilya Samsonov.

Video: Irizarry and Rupp talk about the Kovalchuk Trade

Kovalchuk also knew forward Carl Hagelin, who was a teammate with the Los Angeles Kings last season, and coach Todd Reirden, who was a defenseman on the Atlanta Thrashers when Kovalchuk broke into the NHL with them as an 18-year-old rookie in 2001.

"It's always nice when you know guys," Kovalchuk said. "It makes it easier. But it doesn't really matter because you have to do your stuff and try to learn the different tactics and stuff, a lot of little details that the team [does]."

Through his first three games, Kovalchuk has played mostly on the third line with Hagelin and Lars Eller, but Reirden used him for a few shifts on the top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov in the first period against Minnesota.

The three connected on a 3-on-1 rush with Kovalchuk passing to Kuznetsov, who fed Ovechkin for a left circle one-timer and a goal that increased Washington's lead to 3-1 at 10:59 of the first period.

"It was a couple good shifts," Reirden said. "He's been getting some chances every game and I think he's helped us just be able to put the other team on their heels and another player they have to be aware of. I think he'll continue to get better as we get further and further along here."

Off the ice, Kovalchuk has spent the most time with defenseman Brenden Dillon, who was acquired in a trade from the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 18. Each is living in a hotel near the Capitals practice facility. The Capitals' recent road trip to play the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday and the Wild on Sunday gave Kovalchuk and Dillon some quality time with everyone, but the other players have their own lives when they're home. 

Video: Ovechkin scores twice, Capitals edge Wild

"When the guys come back home, they have kids and families," Kovalchuk said, "and I don't want be another kid in their house."

Kovalchuk's wife Nicole and their four children remain in Los Angeles. This has been a whirlwind season for them.

Kovalchuk began the season with the Kings but played a limited role, getting nine points (three goals, six assists) in 17 games. He was a healthy scratch for 18 straight games before being placed on unconditional waivers and having his contract terminated on Dec. 17, making him an unrestricted free agent.

He signed a one-year, two-way contract with Montreal on Jan. 3 and revived his career there. Kovalchuk had 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 22 games before the Canadiens, who fell out of contention for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and traded him to Capitals for a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Kovalchuk said he's happy to know he will be with one team the rest of the season. 

"Yeah, it's no more trade deadline," he said.

Kovalchuk is hoping for a long playoff run with the Capitals and a chance to win the Stanley Cup for the first time. With 442 goals in 922 regular-season games in 13 NHL seasons, Kovalchuk gives the Capitals another scoring threat at even strength and on the second power-play unit.

Reirden is in the process of figuring out where Kovalchuk fits best at 5-on-5, whether it's on the third line, with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov or with some other combination

"It's just, I think, both player and team getting used to one another," Reirden said. "I think, for sure, that will help him and it's just a matter of time. It would be concerning if we were leaving games and he had zeroes in terms of the way we keep our chances for and against. And he has been generating some opportunities."

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