MONTREAL - Barring a last-minute recovery by Saku Koivu, it will be Alex Kovalev wearing the captain's C when the Montreal Canadiens begin the playoffs against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night.
Coach Guy Carbonneau pretty much ruled out having Koivu in the lineup for the opening game of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final series at the Bell Centre.
Koivu fractured a small bone in his left foot while blocking a shot during a game March 28 in Buffalo. The playmaking centre did not practise with the team this week.
"The progress is what it should have been," coach Guy Carbonneau said of the injury. "Usually a bone needs two to three weeks.
"It's two weeks now. We still need to wait."
Defenceman Francis Bouillon is also expected to sit out with an ankle injury, while winger Michael Ryder is definitely back from a sore knee and defenceman Mike Komisarek is likely to return from a hip injury.
That means Kovalev, who took over as the team's driving force and scoring leader this season, will keep the captaincy he inherited when Koivu sat out the final four games of the regular season.
"One reason we were successful this year is that we avoided injuries," said Kovalev. "It definitely hurts not to have Saku in the lineup, but a lot of guys are hungry and want to take his place and hopefully they'll be as successful as he is. We'll see."
The Bruins also have decisions to make on star centre Patrice Bergeron, who has resumed skating with his team after sitting out since Oct. 27 with a concussion. And scoring leader Marc Savard is expected back after missing seven games with a back injury.
With 100 games of playoff experience, Kovalev is second on the Canadiens to Bryan Smolinski's 111.
He is a strong playoff performer, as he showed in 2004 when Montreal bounced back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Boston in the first round, and will be expected to be the offensive motor again.
Last season, he didn't get a chance to show his skills on the big stage as he drifted through a weak season of only 19 goals and 47 points and the Canadiens were eliminated in their final regular season game.
But the 35-year-old rebounded with the second best season of the his career - 35 goals and 84 points - to lead Montreal to first place in the conference for the first time in 15 years.
"I'm proud that we proved a lot of people wrong," he said. "Last year, we barely had a chance to make the playoffs and this year, we're in first place.
"Everybody responded this year from the start of training camp. The atmosphere was there all year - the hunger of people who want to show they belong on this team."
Kovalev's turnaround will certainly draw some Hart Trophy votes as the player most valuable to his team, although Washington's 65-goal scorer Alexander Ovechkin is the heavy favourite.
"If I get it, it would be amazing," he said. "It would tell me I did something really unbelievably good this year as far as changing things around from last year.
"But if I get a trophy, it's not only me. It's with the help of all the teammates and the organization."
These are happy times for Kovalev. It took him five months to convince his 68-year-old father Viacheslav to make his first visit to Canada. The senior Kovalev arrived in time for the final two games of the season to see his son handed the trophy as the Canadiens player of the year.
Kovalev hopes his father will stay as long as the team remains in the hunt for a 25th Stanley Cup.
"Now he's so happy he made that decision," Kovalev said. "I said 'this is like I told you - it's different from Pittsburgh or New York. It's something you should see.'
"I was happy he was able to come and see the reaction of the crowd and the life in Canada. He's more excited than I am right now. He's giving me all the different plays he used to see when I was a kid. He came up this morning and started drawing a little rink and saying 'why are you not doing this or that.' I had to give a full explanation of why."
"At least now I have someone to analyze the game with," he added with a laugh.
Kovalev owned the Bruins this season, with seven goals and 11 points as the Canadiens swept all eight regular season meetings. His linemate Andrei Kostitsyn and power play point man Mark Streit also had 11 points against Boston, while centre Tomas Plekanec had 10.
But the Bruins are healthier than they've been all season and take heart from at least forcing the final meeting between them to a shootout at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens say they are expecting a tough opponent, but the first period should show if overconfidence has seeped in.
"It's a new season and it will be completely different," Kovalev predicted. "Whatever we did during the season, we have to prepare twice as much now."
Part of that preparation will be having the entire team stay in a hotel the night before the game. It's part bonding and part avoiding the Cup fever that has taken hold of the city.
The Canadiens are getting wall-to-wall coverage in the local newspapers and on TV and radio, and team banners are flying from buildings and cars around the city.
"We have a young team," coach Guy Carbonneau said. "There are a lot of distractions.
"People are really excited outside. I live on the West Island. It takes about 45 minutes to drive here and I get honked at about 150 times every day. People like the team and they want to see us do well. That's why we want to keep the players at bay a bit. Not isolated, but get them rested and ready for the game."
Carbonneau said Ryder, who had been skating on Koivu's line with Christopher Higgins and Sergei Kostitsyn, will dress after sitting out the last two regular season games.
Komisarek, who has missed six games with a hip injury, practised for a third day in a row and looked ready to return, although he still needs clearance from the team doctor.
"I feel pretty good - strong and confident.," said Komisarek. "I'll give feedback to the doctor and then we'll make a decision from there."
Carbonneau expects to see Bergeron and Savard in the Bruins' lineup.
"I didn't expect Marc Savard to miss any playoff games," said Carbonneau. "And if Patrice is ready to go, it's good news for hockey.
"He's been an exciting player since he started playing. It's good news that he's healthy. You have to expect everything in the playoffs. I never count anybody out. It doesn't matter if they were in a wheelchair last week, there's a chance those guys will play."