HabsWorld.net -- 

17 games. 9 goals. 7 assists. 16 points, +2 plus/minus

As the Montreal Canadiens reach the quarter point of their season, I think it’s safe to say that the much maligned Alexei Kovalev has given the Habs exactly what they expected when they signed him to a long term contract a little over two years ago.

The problem is that it took him this long to produce.

Better late, than never.

To give you an idea of how good Kovalev has been this so far this year, take a look at his shooting percentage. Last year, Kovalev’s shooting percentage 9.14. In other words every time he took a shot on net, he had a 9.14% chance to put it in the net. At the 17 game mark of this year Kovalev’s shooting percentage is 26.47%. The scary part is that this year he is averaging less shot’s a game than he did last year (2.0 this year as opposed to 2.70 last year). The other statistic that jumps out is the plus +2, after last years -19, revealing Kovalev’s improvement in all aspects of his game.

Now there are those out there who will argue that the season’s still in its early stages that it’s too early to judge Kovalev’s success this season, because there’s still too much hockey to be played. And that is a fair criticism.

But when compared with the beginning of his season last year, one can’t help but notice the stunning turnaround. Looking back a year ago one can’t recall the struggles of Kovalev, in tandem with his fellow Russian Sergei Samsonov. The combination of their two struggles seemed to drag down the team through the first half of the season. Nowhere was this more apparent in the fate of their center at the time, Tomas Plekanec.

Plekanec became the fall guy for the other two’s struggles and was moved off of their line. Thus, began the revolving door at center between Kovalev and Samsonov, where every player on the team seemingly played between the two. This failed experiment only came to an end when it became apparent that the problem was Kovalev and/or Samsonov, and not the person playing between the two. Adding insult to injury was when Plekanec flourished in the second half, scoring 41 points in the Habs last 43 games of the season.

Clearly, this year was a make or break season for Kovalev with the Canadiens. With Samsonov shipped out to Chicago, the excuses from a year ago where gone, and the time to produce was now.

Now that Kovalev has lived up to expectations this year, one simply asks what’s changed from last year. Why this year? Why now?

Part of the answer lies in last year. In the aftermath of the Samsonov saga, and the flap with Carbonneau in the Russian media, and the Canadiens missing the playoffs, things hit rock bottom for Kovalev.

Coming into this year’s training camp, Kovalev seemed to bring to the Canadiens a renewed focus. This focus was helped by the Canadiens management, specifically general manager Bob Gainey, and head coach Guy Carbonneau, who gave Kovalev a clean slate. By making Kovalev an assistant captain, the team showed a confidence in him. Whether he deserved it or not, is open for debate, but the fact is that Kovalev this year has taken his responsibility seriously.

This year Kovalev made a point of working with the younger players, specifically from Europe. Almost as important has been the renewed devotion by Kovalev to all aspects of his game, which has included a previously unseen commitment to playing defensively in his own end.

It seems to me that Kovalev has reached a new level of maturity. Judging from what I’ve read Kovalev seems to enjoy playing and living in Montreal. And maybe he realized that this year represented his last chance. At 34 years of age, and with his declining point totals, the odds of him finding many other places to play in the NHL at his salary seemed remote.

As of this writing the Canadiens are currently tied for fifth overall in the NHL standings, and are the tenth highest scoring team in the league. All of this and the Canadiens leading scorer of the past two years, Michael Ryder, has struggled to score two goals. Without Kovalev’s hot start it makes you wonder where the Habs would be sitting in the standings.

The only question that remains is whether Kovalev can maintain this level of play, and that will only be answered in time.

Six weeks ago I wrote the following on Kovalev on the eve of the season …

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.

On Tuesday night I had the pleasure of going to the Leafs/Canadiens game at the Air Canada Centre. When I go to see a game live, I try and make a point of focusing on one player during the game. A couple of nights ago I watched Kovalev intently. From what I’d seen on television this year, he seemed to have lifted his game, but I needed to see it in person. Well, there was no question that Kovalev was the best Hab on the ice that night.

On a night when the Canadiens were badly outplayed by the Leafs, it was Kovalev, who helped the Habs get an undeserved two points. Kovalev accounted for all three of the team’s goals in regulation and was deservedly named the games first star.

What I saw was a player who played with a sense of passion, a player whose effort never wavered throughout the game, and a player who committed both offensively and defensively. Here was a player that the Leafs had no answer for the whole night, the exact opposite of what he had been in the last game of last year.

Same building, same opposition, different player, and most importantly, the superstar all of us hoped he would be.