MONTREAL - The mystery that is Alex Kovalev took another twist Saturday night - this time a dramatic three-point return from a two-game exile from the Montreal Canadiens.
The Kovalev who played so lifelessly that general manager Bob Gainey had to convince him to stay home while the slumping team went on a two-game road trip was forgotten and forgiven as the Bell Centre crowd welcomed back the team's most gifted, if often under-achieving, player with a rousing ovation.
Then he delivered a goal and two assists before the game was 24 minutes old as the Canadiens downed the fading Ottawa Senators 5-3.
Afterwards, the 35-year-old said he felt like a new person, or one who had shed the skin of mediocrity that marked his play for much of this season. Now, he's ready to rise to the heights he reached last season when he was Montreal's leading scorer and easily its best player.
"I have no idea why this has been happening for the last few months, but I feel better now," he said. "The last few days are going to help me."
When Kovalev stole the puck from veteran Chris Phillips and went in alone to beat Brian Elliot at 5:38 of the first period, it ended a 10-game scoring drought. The player who scored 35 goals last season now has 14 with 22 games left in the regular season.
That was Kovalev the star, the one Canadiens fans adore when they sense flair and passion in his game.
But since he joined Montreal in a trade from the New York Rangers (for the long-forgotten Jozef Balaj) late in the 2003-'04 season, it's as though there have been two Kovalevs.
One floats around, trying gimmicky-looking moves and losing the puck, then takes. The other uses his muscular six-foot-two frame to get clear of defenders and dazzles with his ability to turn on a dime and feather a perfect pass or blast in a goal.
After Kovalev drifted through the 2006-'07 season, when he had only 18 goals, Gainey went for a long walk with him to work out what was wrong and how it could be fixed.
He returned the next season with new resolve and had his best year since his career-high 95 points with Pittsburgh in 2000-01. But then he lapsed back to the other Kovalev this season
Once again, it's a series of chats with Gainey, before and during his two-game banishment, that may sort it out.
"Alex is a very sincere person," Gainey said this week. "At a point, he was separated from the group.
"He doesn't talk a lot with the other players or the coaches. He tried to find his own answers and tried to do more. We wanted him to do less and accomplish more, instead of trying to beat three guys by himself. That's not in our gameplan."
Kovalev says he doesn't have any problems with his teammates, that he is simply a loner. But he has a special bond with Gainey.
"I don't like to tell things to people or say how I feel," he said. "I'm not that open as a person.
"Bob is the only one I open up to and say how I feel."
Kovalev said he has felt tired this season and was losing weight for reasons even blood tests could not determine. But much of the problem lay in his mind.
That's why Gainey talked him into staying home as the team travelled to Washington and Pittsburgh last week to sort himself out "mentally and physically.
"I hesitate to put it all on Alex's shoulders," Gainey said. "He hadn't had a break for the all-star game (because he played in it)."
He added that there was extra pressure on Kovalev because veteran forwards Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay were injured.
Even before Kovalev's impressive return, Gainey predicted that "if he comes back as Kovalev he was it will be like we made a trade for a new player."
Kovalev echoed those words after the Ottawa game.
"It's always nice when you come back and get that kind of support," he said. "I didn't know what to expect, but I'm a different person now.
"I made a joke - I told my teammates it feels like I just got traded here."
Actually, as he was pondering his career at home, many thought he would be traded. Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur blasted Gainey for humiliating Kovalev and questioned how he could ever come back.
That is one area Gainey can offer no assurances.
Kovalev is in the final season of a four-year contract and will be an unrestricted free agent July 1. The Canadiens are not expected to make him an offer.
Gainey did not show any more inclination to trade Kovalev over any other player, but said if the right deal materializes before the March 4 NHL trading deadline, he could make a move.
"I can't give him any guarantees," said Gainey. "If another team is in position, we have to do whatever we can to improve our team.
"Until the deadline, it's my responsibility to do whatever I can."
Gainey was first off the mark in the trade deadline season last Monday when he sent two draft picks to Atlanta for 39-year-old defenceman Mathieu Schneider in a bid to find a right-point shooter for the power play they have missed since Mark Streit left as a free agent last summer
In three games since then, the Canadiens are 7-for-12 with the man advantage, including 3-for-4 against the Senators including a goal on a precision point shot from Schneider.
"It's like there's been a change in attitude," said coach Guy Carbonneau. "I see a guy like Andrei Markov - he wants to be on the power play now.
"All we ask from Schneider is that he shoot the puck. Now we're getting shots on the net and if you do that, it can go in off a pad or a stick or anything."
The Canadiens also had bad news as defenceman Francis Bouillon was sidelined with a groin injury. He is to see a doctor this week, but Carbonneau said he will likely be out "two-to-four weeks and maybe more."
However, Tanguay looks poised to return from a shoulder injury suffered in early January. Carbonneau said he is doubtful to play Tuesday night against Vancouver, but may be ready for games Friday night in Philadelphia and Saturday night at home against San Jose.