|All eyes will be on Senators forward Alex Kovalev (right) in Montreal on Saturday night, when he makes his much-anticipated return to the Bell Centre for the first time since leaving the Canadiens as a free agent in July.
Alex Kovalev insists it is still much too soon to fully contemplate the mix of emotions that will churn inside of him Saturday night.
But clearly, when the Ottawa Senators face off against the Canadiens tomorrow evening in Montreal (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), it won't be just another game for the 36-year-old Kovalev. After spending the previous five seasons in a Habs uniform – and as one of the fans' most beloved players – he'll don opposition colours at the Bell Centre for the first time since signing in Ottawa as a free agent in July.
"I'm sure there are going to be (mixed emotions) tomorrow," Kovalev admitted after the Senators held their final practice at Scotiabank Place earlier today before embarking on the trip to Montreal. "But right now, I'm trying not to think about it."
Even though his family is now settled in Ottawa, the city he called home for five seasons is never far from mind. His Kovalev and Friends Foundation For Kids remains based in Montreal and he was in the city earlier this week to take part in a fundraising fashion show for the charitable group, which assists children with heart-related diseases.
Still, Kovalev isn't entirely sure what kind of reception he'll get from the Bell Centre faithful on Saturday night. Days before he signed in Ottawa, a group of Canadiens fans held a protest in Montreal, imploring the Canadiens to re-sign the man that wore their colours as the hugely popular "L'Artiste" for so long.
Yet during a pre-season game between the two Northeast Division rivals at Scotiabank Place on Sept. 19, there was a smattering of somewhat loud boos from visiting Habs fans every time Kovalev touched the puck.
"It could be some good moments, it could be some bad moments," said Kovalev. "It could be boos, it could be happy. I can expect anything. But I just have to not forget that I still have to play a hockey game and I'm not playing for Montreal anymore, I'm playing for Ottawa.
"I'm just trying to focus on the game. I know it's going to be hard but I'm just going to try to get the win."
Senators head coach Cory Clouston doesn't doubt it will be an extremely emotional night for Kovalev.
"It's human nature," said Clouston. "He played there for so many years and he had a lot of success there. There's got to be some extra emotion to that game for him."
Added captain Daniel Alfredsson
: "He spent five years there and the fans loved him. They probably have a lot of good memories from him. I think it'll be a good night for him and an exciting one."
"It could be some good moments, it could be some bad moments. It could be boos, it could be happy. But I just have to not forget that I still have to play a hockey game and I'm not playing for Montreal anymore, I'm playing for Ottawa. I'm just trying to focus on the game. I know it's going to be hard but I'm just going to try to get the win." - Alex Kovalev
While the fans and media and Montreal will make much of the occasion, Clouston said the Senators have a different outlook. Rather, they'd like to build on the momentum gained by a 7-1 whipping of the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Place on Thursday night.
"We expect (Kovalev) to play hard and play smart. It'll be interesting," said Clouston. "But our focus isn't going to be on him. I know a lot of the people and the fans' focus will be on him, but our focus will be on trying to build on what we did the last game. We know we're not going to score seven goals every night. But how we scored them was the most important thing."
Alfredsson, for one, doesn't need any extra incentive to play a game in Montreal and he's pretty certain his teammates all feel the same way.
"We're always pumped up going into Montreal," he said. "I think it's one of the most electric buildings in the league. It's always fun to play there."
But for one player, at least, it could well be something beyond even that.
"I know I had some great moments there with that team and organization and the fans," said Kovalev. "I'm sure closer to the game, there will be a little bit more emotion going through my head. But right now, I'm not trying to think about it because the more you think, the worse it will get."
Around the boards
After a performance like Thursday's, Clouston is naturally loathe to tinker with his lineup. But there might be a decision to make if Peter Regin
(upper body) is deemed good to go for the game in Montreal. The Danish centre skated with the team today but a decision on his readiness to play won't be made until Saturday. "If you want to go on merit, it would be tough to get him in because no one played poorly (Thursday)," said Clouston. "But Peter played so well up until then, so it's kind of six of one, half dozen of another. We'll wait until we see how he is tomorrow morning before making a decision." ... Defenceman Filip Kuba
(lower body) and forward Jesse Winchester
(right knee) are out tomorrow night ... Defenceman Anton Volchenkov took a rest day but is expected to be ready for take on the Habs ... The Senators return home to face the Nashville Predators next Thursday at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200). It's also a Subway Savings Game
, with all regular-priced tickets available at 20 per cent off.