Pittsburgh-In the absence of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, GM Ray Shero sent a resilient message to his team by acquiring newcomers James Neal, Matt Niskanen & Alex Kovalev. Shero’s intentions are clear that he intends and expects the Pens to compete for a Stanley Cup.
The Pens still have many key players who played invaluable roles capturing the cup two seasons ago in Detroit. Most of those gritty, hard-nosed players are well established throughout the Penguins lineup. If it weren’t for these types of tenacious players, Stanley Cup rings would never be won. The acquisition of James Neal reemphasized the aggressive “in-your-face” style of hockey that coach, Dan Bylsma preaches. Without failing to recognize the importance of grit and sacrifice, the Pens still needed to find more pure talent.
There is no more pure talent in the world of hockey than Alexei Kovalev. The argument can be made that Kovalev has the best hands and wrist shot of any player in the NHL. Kovalev has the “dangling” ability that not even Sidney Crosby can pull off. Just ask James Reimer how hard of a wrist shot Kovalev carries in his arsenal.
Kovalev has been criticized quite frequently for playing unmotivated hockey over his 21 year tenure. He was rumored to be a poison in the locker room in Ottawa. There were stirs coming out of Madison Square Garden that Kovalev couldn’t handle the pressure of playing in New York City. This pressure only intensified with his stint in Montreal, the mecca of hockey. Through all of this negative light, few people outside of Pittsburgh realize that Kovalev posted career best numbers in the City of Champions. Kovalev posted career highs in the 2000-01 season, scoring 44 goals and 51 assists for 95 points.
Not many expect Kovalev, at the age of 38, to post those types of numbers in his current tenure with the Penguins. He does, however, have to be one of the main sources of production if the Pens want to make any sort of significant run deep into the playoffs. Kovalev will be the first person to admit that he doesn’t expect any difference in production from his first stint in Pittsburgh. “I can do my best. Physically, [I’m] still strong. I can be the same player as I used to be here.” The Pens will go as far as Kovalev takes them. He was brought here to produce. This remains to be seen down the final stretch of the season.
Kovalev made his presence known last Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Slipping a wrist shot from the left circle under the glove hand of James Reimer, Kovalev recorded his first tally since being traded from Ottawa on February 24th. He also sniped a rocket over Reimer’s glove hand for the game-winning goal of the Penguins shootout victory against the Maple Leafs that same night.
The Penguins hope Alex Kovalev opens up the box of magic he once carried when he originally came here from the New York Rangers. Kovalev looks and sounds motivated to be back in Pittsburgh.
“It doesn’t feel like its been almost ten years. Its amazing, that still, a lot of things [are] the same, [and] look the same. I’m just happy to be here again. I’ll try to do my best to make this team strong and finish this season strong.”
For the sake of the Pens, hopefully Kovalev picks up right where he left off 10 years ago. Currently, the Pens are in a safe position to secure a playoff position. The length of their playoff run is going to rest heavily on the veteran, Kovalev. Bill Guerin proved what a motivated veteran can provide to a team during the Pens Stanley Cup run when he was acquired from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline two years ago. Guerin’s locker room presence boosted the Penguins to a third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The fact that Kovalev is content, and wants to be here, can only be positive for the Pens down the stretch to end the season. He will not be a poison, despite what skeptics may say. Kovalev is still one of the most feared players in the NHL due to his unteachable talent. After seeing what Bill Guerin provided for the Penguins, Kovalev was a no-brainer for Shero to pull the trigger on before the trade deadline. Now, it remains to be seen if the Alexei Kovalev that played for the Penguins in the beginning stages of this decade is back.