|Senators forward Alex Kovalev (right) chats with teammates Milan Michalek near the end of their pre-game skate at the Bell Centre on Saturday. Kovalev, a former Canadiens star for five seasons, will play his first game in Montreal tonight since signing with Ottawa as a free agent during the summer.
Nine hours before the opening faceoff and the buzz was already in the air, all but guaranteed to build to the most feverish of pitches.
Ottawa Senators forward Alex Kovalev had barely stepped out of the team's downtown hotel when he was mobbed by a small group of Canadiens fans, anxious to get closer to the man who had thrilled them so many times when he wore their team's colours for the previous five seasons.
But when Kovalev steps on the ice tonight at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), he will do so as a member of the Senators — the National Hockey League team he joined as a free agent in July. The 36-year-old Russian inked a two-year contract with Ottawa just days after Habs fans staged a protest in Montreal, imploring general manager Bob Gainey to re-sign the player they had come to revere as "L'Artiste."
No wonder, then, that Kovalev's teammaes are more than just a little curious to see the reception he'll receive tonight from fans widely considered to be the most passionate in the league.
"On the walk over, there's a lot of Kovalev T-shirts and jerseys and stuff," said Mike Fisher, the centre man between Kovalev and captain Daniel Alfredsson
. "Everyone's waiting to see him and I'm sure he'll be fired up. It's going to be exciting."
Nobody doubts that this isn't just another game for Kovalev, who admitted Friday he expects to feel a mix of emotions when the puck drops shortly after 7 p.m. But the veteran forward has done his best to keep all of that bottled up around his teammates so far.
"If he is (excited), he hasn't really showed it," head coach Cory Clouston said following the Senators' pre-game skate at the Bell Centre earlier today.
"He's a pretty laid-back guy and he's focused and he's just a part of the team. It's a special game for him but the way we want to approach it is to worry about ourselves, focus on our team and try not to worry about the distractions."
The biggest question remains yet to be answer: How will Canadiens fans react to seeing one of their former heroes hitting the ice in opposition colours? It's almost enough to overshadow the Canadiens' (2-4-0) current four-game losing streak, although not in the minds of the Senators (4-2-0). They're here for two points and nothing less.
"On the walk over, there's a lot of Kovalev T-shirts and jerseys and stuff. Everyone's waiting to see him and I'm sure he'll be fired up. It's going to be exciting." - Mike Fisher
"I think he will be received well because of what he did here," said Alfredsson. "Obviously, he was a fan favourite here but once the game comes, we're just going to focus on playing a solid game. We know they have been struggling a bit lately, but we would like to get another two points. It's a division rival, so it's a big game."
Not that his linemates will pass on a chance to give Kovalev a chance to shine.
"We'll try to get him the puck and let him do his thing," Fisher said with a grin. "I'm sure he's excited to play and wants to play well," said Fisher. "He was very well-liked here and has moved on. It's going to be an exciting game. It's a big game for both teams and I'm sure he's pumped up."
Added Alfredsson: "It feels like we're starting to find each other more and more and whoever happens to finish off our plays ... hopefully, we can score some goals and it really doesn't matter who it is. All of us want to have a good game tonight, including Alex."Around the boards
While centre Peter Regin
(lower body) took the pre-game skate, Clouston said he hadn't decided yet whether to insert the Danish centre back into the lineup ... Defenceman Filip Kuba
(lower body) began skating on his own this morning back in Ottawa ... Forward Jesse Winchester
(right knee) has suffered a "slight setback," Clouston said, with no date set yet for his return ... Pascal Leclaire (3-2-0) will make his sixth start of the season in front of his parents and a bunch of friends. He is a native of the Montreal suburb of Repentigny.