Montreal Canadiens\' Mike Komisarek and Philadelphia Flyers\' Daniel Briere fight for the puck as Canadiens goalie Carey Price makes a save during the first period, Saturday in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Boily
MONTREAL - Alex Kovalev's father picked the perfect time to make his first visit to Canada.
Viacheslav Kovalev not only gets to see his son battle for first place in the NHL Eastern Conference, but also saw him named as the Montreal Canadiens player of the year on Friday. It is his first visit to see his son play in seven years.
"It's a great feeling," the Canadiens' interim captain said. "My dad just came in and he was amazed to see all the (Canadiens) flags on the cars.
"He asked me coming in from the airport what the flags are all about and I said you're going to see more of them in the next four or five days. It was his first game (Thursday) night and I can see he's enjoying it. You can imagine what will happen in the playoffs with the fans. They're so excited to go into the playoffs because we missed last year."
The Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs close out the regular season against one another on Saturday night, with Montreal needing a win to stay in the race with Pittsburgh for top spot in the conference and Toronto eliminated from the playoffs for the third straight year.
Kovalev, already having the second-best season of his career with 35 goals and 48 assists, has been Montreal's offensive leader all season and won the team honour handily.
It is a huge change from a year ago, when the Canadiens finished 10th in the conference and Kovalev had perhaps his most miserable season, with only 19 goals and 47 points.
"I didn't want to prove anything to anybody, I just wanted to prove to myself that I can still do it," said the 35-year-old, who had 95 points with Pittsburgh in 2000-01. "I came back and was able to be the player I used to be."
Coach Guy Carbonneau believes that the shock of being left off the Russian national team for last spring's world championship in Moscow - combined with a long chat Kovalev had with general manager Bob Gainey in the off-season - prompted the Russian star to want to prove he can still be an impact player in the NHL.
"What was missing last year was consistency," Carbonneau said of his first-line right winger. "This year, I can count on one hand the games he didn't perform at a high standard.
"That's hard in any sport."
Now, Kovalev's goal is to try to lead the team deep into the playoffs, even to the Stanley Cup, which the Canadiens have not won since 1993.
"The most important thing for us is to bring that feeling back in the locker room that those teams had when they were winning the Stanley Cup," he said. "We talked all year that we have a great team here and we proved it.
"We wanted to win enough that after 75 games, we'd have a playoff spot clinched and won't have to worry about it. Now we'll try to win the conference and then we'll prepare for the long run."
Defenceman Mark Streit, a point man on the league's top power play, was voted by the media as the team's unsung hero for a second year in a row. He's the first to take that award in consecutive seasons since defenceman Craig Ludwig in 1985 and 1986.
Defenceman Mike Komisarek, out since march 22 with a hip injury, practised with the team on Friday and said his recovery is on schedule to be ready to start the playoffs next week.
"I felt really good," he said. "I'm just trying to get back into game shape and get ready for the playoffs."
Defenceman Francis Bouillon, who has a sore ankle, tried to skate but gave up after 15 minutes. Carbonneau said he expects him to be ready for the playoffs, however.
And Greg Stewart, a banging winger from Kitchener, Ont., who was drafted 246th overall in 2004, is to make his NHL debut against the Leafs - replacing Matt D'Agostini, who saw his first NHL action in a 3-1 win over Buffalo on Thursday night.