OTTAWA — Ilya Kovalchuk was waiting to hit the airwaves with TVA Sports’ Renaud Lavoie following his overtime goal to break an eight-game winless streak for the Montreal Canadiens when he locked eyes with Marc Bergevin.
The smiles on their faces could light up the sky.
Two minutes later, Kovalchuk walked by Hockey Night in Canada’s setup outside the visiting locker room at Canadian Tire Centre, opened up the door, and the Canadiens just erupted. “Kovy! Kovy! Kovy!” they chanted, slamming the benches to amplify their clapping.
Techno music blared, laughs were audible on top of it, and the first win in 18 days was relished and savoured for just a few precious minutes before the room opened to the media.
“It definitely feels good, it’s been a long time,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber before offering this sobering thought: “Now we’re going to have to keep it rolling, otherwise it can go back the other way.”
The Canadiens aren’t under any illusions that this win meant anything more than any of the others they’ve notched this season. When goaltender Carey Price said afterwards that “winning solves all problems,” he was referring to the mood in the room—and certainly not suggesting that Montreal’s current standing in the Eastern Conference suddenly appears palatable after a 2-1 win over an Ottawa Senators team that came into the game four points behind Montreal and having lost six straight times.
But yeah, if the Canadiens seemed overjoyed when Kovalchuk — the 36-year-old whose NHL career was hanging by spider’s silk before he inked a two-way deal worth pennies on the dollar with a desperate, injury-plagued Montreal team — came down the left side of the ice, cut to the middle and wired a wrist shot by Marcus Hogberg‘s glove, it’s because they were.
“It’s a lot better than losing,” said Price, who made 41 saves and was only beat on a play that bounced off teammate Matthew Peca’s stick and into his net.
About that: Peca one-timed a shot for a quality scoring chance Hogberg shut down, and then he booked it back to his end of the rink to stop Drake Batherson from cutting to the middle of the ice and getting off a shot that could potentially tie the game with less than seven minutes to go in the third period.
Can you imagine how it felt for him — playing in his first game since suffering a knee injury on Dec. 10 — to make a good play and still have it cost his team a pivotal goal? His team, which had blown third period leads in consecutive games and essentially lost each of its last eight by a goal (in two of Montreal’s losses over their skid, their opponents scored empty-netters)?
“I think that just kind of describes how the last few games have been going,” said Canadiens forward Ryan Poehling, who played a big hand in shutting down Ottawa’s power play on three separate occasions in the third period.
“But I think it was different in how we reacted about it,” Poehling continued. “It’s not about what happens to you, it’s about how you respond to it.”
When you think about the last three weeks in Montreal — the misery that comes with losing so often, and the outright dejection that comes with an unimpeachable effort going repeatedly unrewarded — you can’t say the Canadiens weren’t responding well.
They stood up and took responsibility, they never let down and they stuck together.
And then there’s this, which says much about this group: Kovalchuk seemed quite touched as he talked about how openly he’s been embraced since touching down midway through this epic storm.
“It’s a great atmosphere in this locker room,” the Russian said. “I said that from the first minute I came in. The guys (were) unbelievable (with me).
“They were warm to welcome me, so open, and I felt like I’ve been here for so much time (but) I’ve just been here for a week.”
GM Bergevin felt Kovalchuk might be able to make a difference and called his acquisition a “no-risk” move back on Jan. 3.
We thought it couldn’t hurt, given the absence of top-nine forwards Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia and Paul Byron, but we never imagined Kovalchuk would come in and be given a top-line role, be depended on for 20 minutes per game and be capable of producing much of anything.
You can’t help but smile about the fact that he’s got three assists — and possibly the most important goal the team has scored all season — to his name in his four games in uniform.
And if it wasn’t the most important goal (because most people around town feel the Canadiens might be better-served losing games and increasing their draft-lottery odds than winning and doing the opposite when it seems hopeless they’ll make the playoffs), it was the feel-good goal of the season.
“I think, for everybody, it was kind of a big-time relief,” said Montreal coach Claude Julien. “If (he doesn’t score) it just keeps getting heavier and heavier.
“So there’s a huge relief. There’s no doubt about that. That’s why the guys are so happy…”
Never mind that the Canadiens are still seven points out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card position, forget that they rank sixth in the Atlantic Division and remain nine points back of the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
A win is a win, and these guys deserved to enjoy it.