The second period goal showed why, even a month from his 40s, Alex Kovalev brings something rare to an NHL team.
With the puck beneath the goal line and outside the left post, Kovalev tried to bank in a shot off Carolina backup goalie Dan Ellis. That didn’t work, but the puck came back to Kovalev. So, he sidled over to the other side and tried the same shot: goal.
Few players would’ve tried the first shot and even fewer would’ve tried it with enough confidence to try it a second time after the first time failed.
“I saw the goalie was kind of struggling to get up to the other side, so I tried the same move from the other side,” Kovalev said. “It was weird. I was surprised myself how long it took him to get to the other side. It was like a second and he was still down.”
Kovalev ended the night with that goal and two assists after spending last season out of the NHL. Clearly, he can still play despite a knee injury that got him out of a two-year Atlant Moscow Oblast.
“I don’t even think about that anymore,” Kovalev said.
Putting Kovalev, NHL Draft history’s first Russian player taken in the first round when the Rangers took him in 1991, with rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and 24-year-old Peter Mueller makes sense not only in putting elite ability with elite ability. All three can handle the puck and are strong on their skates with long limbs. Also, it creates a second scoring line. The Panthers were top heavy in scoring last year, the first line of Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann.
But Huberdeau, who watched Kovalev during the veteran’s time in Montreal, was a No. 3 overall pick of the Panthers in 2011 and Mueller’s a 2006 first round pick of Phoenix once considered a lock to be a star before concussions and injuries hit. Kovalev knows something about being young and gifted enough to be saddled with ponderous expectations.
“[Huberdeau] showed what he’s done in junior, he continued doing the game thing here,” Kovalev said. “I said to him this morning, ‘The game is the same. Maybe faster paced, bigger guys, but the same game.’”
Kovalev spent his younger days scaring opponents with his raw talent before making his own coaches’ gnash their teeth by overstaying his shifts, over handling the puck and rarely using his laser wrister. Even by Dead Puck Era standards, Kovalev produced beneath his talent, taking until his ninth season (2000-01) and second team (Pittsburgh) to finish a season with a point-per-game average.
During that time, an aging Mario Lemeiux, in his early 2000s comeback with Pittsburgh, called Kovalev the most talented player on the Penguins. Now, he might be the most talented player on the Panthers — or, the third most talented player on his line.
“We had a good game today,” Kovalev said. “Teams are going to play differently against us and be a lot tougher. I’ll take this game as a starting point and we’ll make adjustments.”