MONTREAL — It was after Ilya Kovalchuk stormed down the gut of the ice and ended a nail-biter of a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and his Montreal Canadiens that he circled back towards the home side’s bench, crossed his arms and then extended them out while screaming, ‘It’s over.”
Then he turned towards the crowd, pointed at his family in attendance and churned his arms up and down before slamming himself into the glass. He was then mobbed by his teammates.
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Canadiens forward Max Domi called it the celebration of the year.
“Across the league,” he added.
It was really just a perfect sample of who Kovalchuk has proven himself to be since signing a two-way, prorated $700,000 contract to rekindle his NHL career.
“If I just wanted to sit and collect my paycheque, I could have done that for another year-and-a-half (in L.A.),” he told us shortly after arriving in early January.
No one else was serious about offering Kovalchuk an opportunity to prove he was worth something after he and the Los Angeles Kings opted to terminate his contract less than halfway through their three-year, $18.75-million pact. But the Canadiens have gotten more than their money’s worth on their investment.
On Saturday, in front of boisterous Bell Centre crowd, with Canada tuned into the national broadcast and much on the line between two of the NHL’s longest-standing rivals, Kovalchuk scored his fourth game-deciding goal (one in regulation, two in overtime and one in the shootout) as a member of the Canadiens. His shot, which gave them a 2-1 win and got them to within five points of the Leafs, who occupy third place in the Atlantic Division, was his 12th point in 15 games with Montreal.
But what the big Russian has given this group is so much more than that. Kovalchuk has brought hope, he’s brought wall-to-wall effort, and he’s taken care of every single detail to help them win nine of their last 12 games.
Not that we’d discount that he’s been on the ice for close to 50 per cent of the goals the Canadiens have scored since he’s arrived. And the six that have come off his stick have all been huge.
“We wouldn’t have those wins if it wasn’t for him,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said after Saturday’s contest. “He’s not the perfect player. There isn’t a perfect player. But everything that I’ve talked about for days now and weeks—his energy, his will, he’s happy for (Marco) Scandella to score his first goal (and) that’s the first thing that comes out of his mouth. He’s got the right demeanour for this team right now being a veteran and buying into everything we’re trying to do here. So there’s that, and then those goals.”
About Scandella (and goals): The Montreal native, who was the other player Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin brought in while his team was ailing at both ends and losing game after game, came up with the game-tying marker with 2:23 remaining in regulation. It was his first in bleu, blanc et rouge, and he too was in a celebratory mood after the win.
“Growing up watching the Canadiens, being a Habs fan my whole life, it’s a dream come true,” Scandella said. “Goals like that—this is why I play this game. I feel really blessed, lucky to be able to do that, to play at the Bell Centre every home game. I can’t even describe it. It’s amazing.”
He’s an example of a player who has willed his way towards contributing to the Canadiens keeping their thin playoff hopes alive, playing through a nagging injury and proving to be the reliable defenceman Julien was hoping for when Bergevin gave up a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 2.
“We went to him for reinforcements and he’s absolutely giving us reinforcements,” said Julien. “He’s a veteran and, again, no one’s perfect. We can look at his errors but we can look at his good things too. I think his experience, in general, is very good. He scored a big goal tonight. He’s got a good shot. We knew that he had a good shot. He came here with a good attitude and wants to be here and that’s the kind of guy we want in our dressing room.”
Kind of like Kovalchuk.
The 36-year-old, who finished up Friday’s practice and drove to an outdoor rink to play hockey with his kids while 30 centimeters of snow was falling and winds were swirling at close to 60 km/h.
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Kovalchuk, the hockey-loving man who pinned Toronto’s goal on their only shot of the third period on himself after he lost an edge in the offensive zone to give the Leafs a 4-on-2 opportunity John Tavares ended up finishing.
“I kind of felt like I had to make it back from the mistake,” he said of the effort he showed after that.
It was Kovalchuk who had Montreal’s three best scoring chances and three of their 16 shots in the third period. It wasn’t for Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell, he’d have tied or closed this game out on his own before overtime.
It didn’t matter in the end. Kovalchuk won it after Nick Suzuki generated a rebound on the breakaway and he celebrated like he might never score again.
“It’s how much he loves the game,” said Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot. “He’s not the youngest guy anymore, but every day he’s… Whatever he’s working on in the gym, on the ice—he’s as passionate of a guy as I’ve ever seen playing the game. That’s what’s made him one of the best players for his generation, one of the best goal scorers; it’s just how much he loves the game. And that’s what’s common among the great players is just how much they love the game. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, guys like that come to mind when I think of guys who have the same kind of passion for the game that Kovy does.”