Cristobal Huet made quite the impression on the home crowd in his Bell Centre debut, stopping 34 of 37 shots and two more in the shootout.
MONTREAL - After telling everyone who would listen that he's been more than ready to return to the lineup for over a week, Alex Kovalev proved his point in the Canadiens' 4-3 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
With Jose Theodore, Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik and Tomas Plekanec all out of the lineup due to injury, Kovalev picked up the slack with two goals, an assist and a shootout goal, all after missing 13 games following knee surgery.
Holding a 3-0 second period lead, the top-ranked Senators (23-5-3) seemed well on their way to victory, but the Canadiens (17-9-6) refused to go quietly. Kovalev got the ball rolling thanks to a nifty move and a quick shot that almost fooled Dominik Hasek as trailer Niklas Sundstrom buried the rebound to make it 3-1. Kovalev, who wasn't done making history on this night, picked up his 700th NHL career point and earned what wouldn't be his last standing ovation of the evening.
Only two minutes later No. 27 was at it again as he helped set up Michael Ryder for his team-leading 16th goal of the season and fifth in as many games to pull the Canadiens within one, which once again send the capacity crowd into a frenzy upon hearing P.A. announcer Michel Lacroix say Kovalev's name.
"The fans here are unbelievable," said Kovalev. "The feeling and energy in this building and this city are why I decided to come back to Montreal. They have supported me so much since I first got here. I don't know what else to say, the crowd here is really incredible."
Clearly still only getting warmed up, not even a gash on the top of his nose courtesy of an Andrej Meszaros' high-stick could slow Kovalev down. On the ensuing power-play a little over four minutes into the third period, the 32-year-old Russian tied the game with his eighth goal of the season and 300th of his career.
With the remainder of the final frame and overtime solving nothing, the stage was set for more dramatics. Pierre Dagenais and none other than Kovalev beat Hasek during the shootout while the Senators failed to connect on each of their two attempts, wrapping up the Canadiens' first win in four games against the Senators so far this season.
Claude Julien's troops clawed their way back from a 3-0 deficit for the first time since roaring back for a 4-3 overtime win over St. Louis back on Dec. 10, 1997 at the Bell Centre.
"It wasn't just me out there tonight," said Kovalev. "There are 20 guys in this room who gave all they had tonight. This is a big win for us and I think it's going to be really good for our confidence."
After going 4-6-3 during his 13-game absence, the Canadiens are now 13-3-3 with Kovalev in the lineup this season. Needless to say, head coach Julien is thrilled to have him back.
"When Alex first got to Montreal, people didn't know a lot about him and many believed he might be a selfish player, someone who didn't work hard or who was tough to coach, but I can tell you he's been the complete opposite of that," said Julien. "When you see a player like Kovalev, an athlete who is an inspiration to his teammates, especially the young guys and you see how hard he worked to get back on the ice, it says a lot. And he's got so much natural talent that he can play his own game and do it all himself if Alex wanted to, but he doesn't. Instead he's a total team player."
In his first start at home, Cristobal Huet was solid, to say the least. The night got off to a rough start when Jason Spezza took advantage of a defensive lapse to put the Senators on the board in the game's second minute. The St. Martin D'Heres, France native rebounded in a hurry, turning aside 34 of Ottawa's 37 shots. Apart from Spezza, only Meszaros and Zdeno Chara were able to beat Huet, both with the man advantage.
"Cristobal was extraordinary tonight," added Julien. "Even when he didn't see the puck, he got himself into a good position so that the pucks would hit him. The Senators have guys who can take a great shot from the blue line and others who are right by the net. Cristobal did a great job of stopping those shots and when you face Heatley and Alfredsson in a shootout and you don't give them anything, right there, it's a big deal."
Huet couldn't agree more.
"There's no doubt that I've faced my share of shootouts playing in Europe," admitted Huet, who heard the capacity crowd chanting his name as he stopped both Senators shooters he faced, for the Canadiens' second shootout win of the season. "But when you have guys like that coming at you it's a whole new ball game. I don't think anything could have prepared me for that!"
Kovalev's big night came on the same day he made sure to warn the media not too expect too much from him in his first game back after surgery.
"I just said that so you guys would leave me alone," laughed Kovalev. "I've felt like I was ready to go since last week and I'm just happy to be back."
Judging from the handful of standing ovations he received on Tuesday, the feeling is definitely mutual.
The Canadiens will now close out the calendar year with a five-game road trip, beginning Friday in Washington.
NOTES: The Canadiens were without G Jose Theodore (knee), C Saku Koivu (groin), RW Richard Zednik (flu), Tomas Plekanec (knee) and C Radek Bonk (groin)... Despite being dressed, Mark Streit failed to play a single shift... Tuesday night's matchup with the Senators drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 18th consecutive sellout of the season and 41st straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04... Spezza left the game in the first period with a pulled chest muscle and managed only more shift to start the second period...Held off the scoresheet on Tuesday, Mike Ribeiro saw his six-game point streak snapped... With two assists on the night, Andrei Markov extended his point streak to eight games, notching two goals and seven assists in that span...Pierre Dagenais has now scored on both of his shootout opportunities...The Senators are now 17-1-2 when scoring first...The loss marked the first time since a 5-4 OT loss to the Maple Leafs in February 2004 that Ottawa gave up a three-goal lead...Ottawa is now 21-1-1 when scoring three or more goals this season...
|OTT||Dany Heatley||No goal|
|OTT||Daniel Alfredsson||No goal|
|OTT||Mike Fisher||Did not shoot|
|MTL||Michael Ryder||Did not shoot|
Montreal wins the shootout 2-0.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com