ARLINGTON, Va. — Ilya Kovalchuk is fully committed to helping the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup, but the forward is also rooting for the Montreal Canadiens to do well this NHL postseason.
“Hopefully, we’ll see them in the conference final,” Kovalchuk said Wednesday.
When it appeared the Canadiens were unlikely to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, they traded Kovalchuk, a potential unrestricted free agent, to the Capitals for a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft on Feb. 23. But things changed after the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
The Canadiens (31-31-9, .500 points percentage), in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, were included the NHL Return to Play Plan as part of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. They will play the fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, .623) in a best-of-5 series that starts Aug. 1, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.
It’s possible their opponent there could be the Capitals (41-20-8, .652), who, as one of the top four in the conference in points percentage, will play a round-robin against the Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, .657), Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7, .645) and Boston Bruins (44-14-12, .714) to determine the seeding for the Eastern Conference First Round.
Playoff matchups will be determined by seeding each round, not set by a bracket as in previous seasons. Montreal and Washington could be paired in any round through the Eastern Conference Final based on the results.
The Canadiens signed Kovalchuk as a free agent Jan. 3 after he and the Los Angeles Kings agreed to part. In February, with Montreal out of a playoff position, general manager Marc Bergevin asked Kovalchuk where he wanted to be traded. The 37-year-old requested Washington because he thought he’d fit well and have a good chance to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Kovalchuk said he enjoyed his limited time with the Canadiens (22 games) and that he keeps in touch with some of his former teammates, but said he has no regrets about the trade.
“It’s all history and I’m very happy to be here,” Kovalchuk said. “We have a great team here and great chance, so we just need to work hard as a team and be as well-prepared as we can as a team.”
Kovalchuk scored nine points (three goals, six assists) in 17 games of his second season with the Kings before they put him through unconditional waivers and terminated his contract Dec. 17. He signed a one-year contract with Montreal and scored 13 points (six goals, seven assists), including three game-winning goals, before being traded to Washington. Playing mostly on the Capitals’ third line and second power-play unit, Kovalchuk scored four points (one goal, three assists) in seven games before the season was paused.
Going through training camp with Washington before it leaves for the hub in Toronto on July 26 will help the left wing get more familiar with its style of play.
“The second time around it’s much easier when you know all the guys, the coaching staff and the system,” Kovalchuk said. “All the drills on the ice, they’re all the same. It’s nice to be feeling familiar with everything, and it’s way more comfortable the second time around, for sure.”
Kovalchuk’s transition was eased by having four fellow Russians on the team, including good friend Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov, and rookie backup goalie Ilya Samsonov. But Kovalchuk said he got along quickly with all his new teammates.
“We spent I think the last 10 days before the break on the road, and that helps to grow a little chemistry,” he said. “It’s always good when you spend [time together]. Now we’re going to spend hopefully two and a half, three months in a bubble city, Toronto or somewhere else, and it will be nice. But it’s easy, especially with all those Russians here, and Ovi.
“Obviously, he’s the captain and he brings all that energy and he wants the guys to hang out together and be family.”