Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Big Red Machine

Make no mistake about it...Alex Kovalev is the engine pulling this Habs train to first place in the East. Sure, the defence is massively improved over last year with the addition of Hamrlik, the return to form of Bouillon and the emergence of Gorges and O'Byrne. Other forwards are contributing, with seven forty-point scorers for the first time since the team's last Cup Final appearance. The goaltending has been solid for the most part, and there's a kind of rare cameraderie and got-your-back attitude in the room. Even Guy Carbonneau has improved, with a much more relaxed attitude and smarter coaching decisions.

But Kovalev...he's the glue holding the whole collage together. Today, after his four-point night against Buffalo, he sits at fifteenth place in NHL scoring. He's ahead of the Sedins, Dany Heatley, Scott Gomez and Olli Jokinen. Sidney Crosby too...but we can't count that when you consider Crosby's injury. I don't remember the last time the Habs had a guy ranked that high in league scoring.

Tomas Plekanec is feeding off the perfect cross-ice passes from Kovalev on the powerplay. Speaking of which, the powerplay is still number one in the league while Kovalev leads the league in PP points. The PK has also improved, since Carbonneau decided to make Kovalev a full-time penalty-killer. So now he's setting up shorthanded goals as well.

This season, I've seen Kovalev block shots, hustle back to cover his own zone and unselfishly dish the puck to his much younger linemates when he might have scored himself. His wristshot from the right circle has the accuracy of a night-vision scope. Last night, when the Sabres had scored their second goal and the defence was looking a little harried, Kovalev skated over to Carey Price and had a little chat with him during a stoppage in play. Things settled down after that and the Habs chugged on to a nice win. This is the definition of a guy who does it all, and when you consider where the Canadiens were predicted to finish this year, you have to look at Kovalev as a major reason why they're first in their division instead.

So...the question is: Has Kovalev done enough to become a Hart Trophy candidate? If you look at the definition of the award, which says the winner is the player who is most valuable to his team, you'd have to think he has a chance to get his name on the ballot. Here's a guy who, at 35 years of age, is set to have one of his best offensive seasons, is a solid plus player, is wearing the A for his team and showing why he has it, is dominant on special teams and is making his teammates better players.

I guess the real litmus test is to think about where the team would be without Kovalev. The PP would certainly be less effective. Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec would likely not be sitting on the first line without Kovalev as a winger. The many, many games in which Kovalev has figured as the Habs' offensive force would be either much closer or be lost. The very fear he instills in opposing defenders wouldn't be there, nor the respect for the Habs' attack we're witnessing now.

I think Kovalev should be a Hart candidate. Whether he becomes one might depend on how far uphill that engine can drag the Little Team That Could.

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