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You can feel it in the air. The weather is beginning to turn a little cooler and the leaves are starting to fall to the ground. You find yourself putting the shorts away and bringing your sweaters out of the dresser. You walk around humming the Hockey Night in Canada theme and have started sorting through all of the players searching for your fantasy sleepers. You’ve seen the commercials on the television and you’ve had to endure some preseason hockey, if you chose to watch at all.

You can hardly wait for the puck to drop this year on the Canadiens season.

For the past month you’ve had to endure pages and pages written about the Canadiens; all without them playing a single meaningful game.

This year’s preseason offered no shortage of stories. Chief among them was the goaltending battle that culminated in the naming of Carey Price as the Habs backup heading into the season. No less surprising was the demotion of Maxim Lapierre to Hamilton. The return of Patrice Brisebois to the fold certainly garnered a fair share of attention as did Saku Koivu’s remarks about the team’s Cup chances.

Strangely, lost in the shuffle was Alexei Kovalev.

What makes this even stranger is that this upcoming season represents a make or break year for Alexei Kovalev. The time for excuses is past. Now beginning his third full year in Montreal, one could argue that Canadiens fans have yet to see the best of Kovalev.

It’s hard to argue that we haven’t seen the worst of Alexei Kovalev already. I think it’s safe to say that Kovalev is the most frustrating hockey player I’ve ever watched. There are times when you watch Kovalev that you feel as if you’re watching someone so talented, that it feels as if he is merely toying with the opposition for his own amusement.

Unfortunately, for most of Kovalev’s tenure in Montreal, the joke’s been on the Canadiens and their fans. To say that Kovalev has performed below expectations would be a major understatement. After all, the Canadiens certainly didn’t expect him to finish 134th in scoring last year. Add all the extra baggage, and his abysmal performance in the season’s final game against the Leafs and one could see how the Canadiens got nowhere near their money’s worth.

But to me, even more frustrating is how Kovalev appears disinterested game after game. It just appears as if he’s going through the motions and skating aimlessly around instead of actually playing the game. It seems to me that he gets in these moods where he appears to pout on the ice and purposely plays down to a level way below his talents.

It’s almost as if he feels the need to show the Canadiens that he won’t let them be the boss of him. It’s feels like he’s saying to the Canadiens, if things don’t go my way, then I’m not going to come out and play.

As we sit on the eve of this season there is a sense of caution surrounding the Canadiens. Even the most diehard fan seems to be a little wary of committing to this team yet. It feels as if people are taking a wait and see approach to this Canadiens team. Fans appear to be tempering their enthusiasm in part because of their disappointment from the past few years. The reasoning seems to be that if one doesn’t have high hopes then the fall will be less painful.

The general media appears to be even less enthusiastic about Montreal’s chances. Much was made of the Hockey News’ prediction of the Canadiens finishing in 13th place in the Eastern Conference this year. Truth be told, there aren’t many “experts” picking the Canadiens to do well this season. In fact, Sports Illustrated currently has them ranked as the 23rd best team in the NHL.

With all that being said this team has more potential than most realize. This is a team that last year finished with 90 points and won eight games more than they lost. All of this was accomplished without much of a contribution from Alexei Kovalev.

And while we won’t know for a while how good this Canadiens team is, it’s safe to say that the performance of one player will be a good indicator of how far this team climbs in the standings.

While it is a mistake to place a team’s fortunes all in the hands of one player, one can’t understate the importance of Alexei Kovalev to this years Canadiens squad.

If Kovalev can revert to his point a game pace of two years ago the Habs playoff chances can do nothing but increase. The better Kovalev is, the better this team will be. Alexei Kovalev has the talent to be an elite player. If he can take his game near that level this year the Canadiens will make the playoffs. If he can’t, the Habs will once again struggle to make the postseason.

And while the Canadiens haven’t played a game yet, the preliminary signs are encouraging. Kovalev’s preseason performance certainly was promising and he does seem to have come to camp this year with a better attitude and a renewed emphasis on reestablishing himself as the star that he is.

The start of the season is a time of hope for all hockey fans. All of the teams begin equally, all with an equal chance of success. However, what we see now, what we think now, may turn into a mirage later on. But maybe, just maybe, that hope can be fulfilled. And therein lays the beauty of the start of the NHL season, when every fan prides themselves on being an optimist.

It’s now time for Alexei Kovalev to stand up and play up to his potential and more importantly to earn the high ticket salary the Canadiens have been paying him for the past couple of years. Clearly, this is a make or break season for Alexei Kovalev, with the Canadiens season hanging in the balance.