MONTREAL — Alexei Kovalev desperately wanted to win MVP of the all-star game in front of a home crowd, and accomplishing that is not the only thing he hopes to give Montreal Canadiens fans this season.
"There’s still a lot of work left to be done, getting the MVP is not enough," Kovalev said after starring in the Eastern Conference’s 12-11 shootout win over the West on Sunday.
"The team has done a good job staying in the race to make the playoffs, but it’s important for us to finish strong and get the real present for the fans."
That present, of course, would be a long playoff run and a chance to play for the Stanley Cup in the Canadiens centennial season.
The chances of them doing that rest heavily on Kovalev’s shoulders, as he was the team’s offensive leader with 35 goals and 49 assists last season when the Canadiens broke through to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
This season, however, Kovalev’s production has dipped, though not necessarily his level of play. He’s consistently created chances but has had plenty of bad luck, particularly with goalposts.
The slick winger, who scored twice and added another in the shootout, also hit two posts in the all-star game, including one about 40 seconds into overtime on a chance that would have sealed the win.
"That’s my game this season," Kovalev said, shaking his head. "That’s my luck."
Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau was behind the Eastern Conference bench as an assistant to Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins, and he was left shaking his head when he saw that missed opportunity in overtime.
"We were looking at each other on the bench, and even Claude Julien kind of knew that," Carbonneau said of Kovalev’s luck with goalposts this season. "We still have a lot of games left, and maybe in the last game of the Stanley Cup final it will hit the inside of the post and go in."
Kovalev expressed his disappointment in his performance on breakaways in Saturday’s skills contest, but he made no mistake when given the same opportunity in Sunday’s game, scoring once on each of the West goalies.
At 16:34 of the first he cradled a long stretch pass from Tomas Kaberle with one hand before going in on Jean-Sebastien Giguere and burying a wrist shot to make it 3-1 for the East.
Then at 13:35 of the second he stole a puck from Scott Niedermayer and deked to his backhand on Niklas Backstrom before roofing home his second of the night.
Finally, as the second shooter in the shootout, Kovalev ripped a wrist shot over Roberto Luongo’s glove hand to give the East a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas — who has given up goals to Kovalev every which way — still marvels at his skills, especially in a format like an all-star game that allows it to shine through.
"He’s incredibly talented," Thomas said. "I got my money’s worth just watching him over the course of the weekend."
Kovalev, knowing he had two goals heading into the third period, predicted he would win the MVP award in a radio interview during the second intermission.
"I’m not going to hide it, I was really thinking about finishing it that way," Kovalev said. "I wanted to do it in front of my home crowd for how they’ve been supporting me from the beginning. Good moments, bad moments, they’ve always been behind me.
"You can’t ask for a better moment than this."
Unless a much better one comes along sometime in June.