|Senators forward Alex Kovalev salutes the Bell Centre crowd after being named the third star of Ottawa's 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. Kovalev contributed one goal and assist to the win (Getty Images).
The answer, it seemed, was rather loud and obvious before the first drop of the puck at the Bell Centre.
When the sold-out crowd at the Bell Centre heard the name of Alex Kovalev — their hero for five seasons in Canadiens red, white and blue — in the starting lineup announced for the Ottawa Senators on a much-anticipated Saturday night, the news was greeted with a singular response.
Heart-felt and loud cheers, the kind Kovalev heard frequently during his time as the beloved "L'Artiste" in Montreal.
But as the emotional night unfolded, the rollercoaster ride began, with a bizarre mix of cheers and boos — the latter group sometimes the loudest — for the 36-year-old Russian. It was a similar response at the 4:44 mark of the second period, when Kovalev's sharp cross-ice pass set up Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
for the eventual deciding goal on the power play in a 3-1 Senators victory.
Guess who added the insurance marker? Yep, the man with an ever-present flair for the dramatic. But when Kovalev's high wrist shot from the slot whipped past Canadiens goaltender Carey Price at the 11:28 mark of the third period, it lifted the Montreal faithful to their feet. Once again, the house was filled with lusty cheers, a standing ovation to salute their former star.
Gone but clearly not forgotten, it appeared. Then again, five years of brilliance and memory are not so easily erased, a sentiment that ran both ways. Kovalev touched his heart twice in saluting the crowd that cheered once again after he was named the game's third star.
"It means a lot," Kovalev said about the huge ovations. "It's appreciation for what I have done for the city. I really appreciate all the support the fans (in Montreal) have given me and I was glad I had a chance to show my appreciation.
"I can't find any words to describe how you feel when you see all the support you keep getting from these fans."
The goal, Kovalev's third of the season, was the icing on the cake.
"It's always a great feeling to score," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's against your former team or not. Who doesn't want to score? Everybody likes to score."
Senators head coach Cory Clouston liked the fact Kovalev had a major hand in the goals that brought the Senators (5-2-0) a big road victory over their Northeast Division rivals.
"It was a tough night for him emotionally," said Clouston. "You could tell he was a little bit nervous. But he found a way to make a difference for our team and I think that's so important. When we needed a big goal, he got it in the third. When we needed a power-play goal, he made a beautiful pass to Alfie. He did what he had to do to help us win."
As he made he way to the arena he called home for half a decade, Kovalev still wasn't sure how he'd be received by the Montreal fans. It was the question of the night but Kovalev knew the 21,273 on hand, passionate as they always are, wouldn't exactly hide their sentiments.
"I didn't know what to expect but it doesn't really matter," he said. "Booing or cheering, it's all about recognition and I got that tonight and I really appreciate the fans (here) who have given me all the support over the years. It was a good night and it was important for us to get the win."
Clouston gave them what they wanted right away, inserting the line of Kovalev, Alfredsson and centre Mike Fisher into the starting lineup.
"He deserved that," said Clouston. "Whether we were here or not, he was probably going to start anyway but it's just nice for him to be able to get the anthem and the appreciation from the crowd."
For his part, Kovalev just wanted to see the puck hit the ice.
"I didn't know what to expect but it doesn't really matter. Booing or cheering, it's all about recognition and I got that tonight and I really appreciate the fans (here) who have given me all the support over the years. It was a good night and it was important for us to get the win." - Alex Kovalev
"Let's just start the game already and get it underway," he said afterward in describing his emotions.
His teammates understood this wasn't just another game for Kovalev.
"I think it's a special night," said Alfredsson. "He's playing in a city like Montreal, with all the history they have here. And to win over the fans like he did ... you saw he left his mark. It's nice for him to get recognized the way he did."
Kovalev admitted it's a game and a night he won't soon forget.
"It's something that you'll remember ... it's a special moment," he said." I'll enjoy tonight but then you have to move on because there's still a lot of games to get played. It's only the first time we've met them and there are still a lot of games to be played between us."
They'll get easier from now on, he is sure.
"You always want to get that out of the way and not think about it anymore," said Kovalev. "Next time, when you come to this building, you already feel like you're not in Montreal anymore. You play for the other team and you just forget about where you played before ... life goes on and you feel different."