MONTREAL - If the National Hockey League had an award for comeback player of the year, a prime candidate could be Alex Kovalev of the Montreal Canadiens.
Last season, the skilled, but unpredictable right winger scored only 18 goals and looked to be on his way out of Montreal and perhaps even the NHL.
But Kovalev has rebounded to become the Canadiens scoring leader, as well as acting as mentor to young Belarus forwards Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn.
"You can't be perfect all your career - there's going to be ups and downs," the 34-year-old Kovalev said Thursday after the pre-game skate. "Last year was one of those years where you can't find your game and nothing's going your way.
"This year, I tried to change things. The older you are, the harder you have to work. I worked a little harder in the summer time and it paid off."
In New York on Sunday, when captain Saku Koivu sat out with the flu against the Rangers, coach Guy Carbonneau put the 'C' on Kovalev's jersey for the first time.
It would have been unimaginable a year ago, when Kovalev sulked through a poor season, but it was the obvious choice this time.
No Canadien has worked and produced as consistently as the six-foot-one 225-pound Kovalev, who on Thursday was named the Canadiens' player of the month for December, the second month in a row he has won.
The team responded with a strong effort in New York, but fell 4-3 in a shootout.
"The reason he did it is to give you guys (reporters) something to talk about for the next couple of weeks," he joked about the temporary captaincy. "It's definitely a big honour.
"I wasn't really looking at it as being captain or assistant captain. The guys came together. We wanted to finish our (six-game) road trip on the right note and then go celebrate New Year's. We knew we had a couple of days off after that and we played to the limit."
He had hoped to keep the jersey as a souvenir, but it was taken away. After all, he may need it again.
Carbonneau said he made Kovalev the captain because the team was in New York, where the Russian started his career in 1992-93 and won a Stanley Cup in 1994.
And it was because "he deserved it.
"He's been one of our best players, if not the best player, since the start of the year," added the coach. "This year his attitude is good. He gets in the room and he talks, he gets involved. I don't think there's one guy that wants to win more than Alex in this room. It's good to see him work hard and play well."
At the end of last season, Carbonneau and GM Bob Gainey had a meeting with Kovalev to straighten out some issues and let him know what they expect from him.
Kovalev not only struggled on the ice in 2006-07, he also spent much of the season embroiled in controversy over an interview he gave to a Russian radio station.
In it, he is alleged to have said that Carbonneau doesn't like Russians, that the team's defensive style stifles creative players, that the team was divided into cliques and that young French Canadian players like Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre had swollen egos because of their popularity with the fans.
Kovalev denied making those statements at the time, and won't discuss it this season.
He also missed seven games with an elbow injury, which would have been overlooked had it not surfaced just after he was benched for the third period of a game, leading some to speculate that he was more miffed with the coach than injured.
There was more bad news after the Canadiens missed the playoffs, when the Russian Ice Hockey Federation left him off its team for the world championships, which were held in Moscow last spring. Kovalev had been captain of the Russian side at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
That as much as anything moved Kovalev to reflect on where his career was headed, said Carbonneau.
"The fact that he didn't have a season he wanted last year and the fact that he was put aside by the Russian team - those are things that make you sit down and start thinking and that's what he did," Carbonneau said.
"He re-evaluated himself and came back in great shape, with a great attitude and it's carried on."
Since he joined the Canadiens late in the 2003-04 season, Kovalev has probably been the club's most skilled player, but not always its most dedicated.
He was a big factor in winning a playoff round in 2004 and has 17 points in as many playoff games with Montreal, but his regular season output dropped from 65 points in 2005-06 to 47 last season. That from a player who had a career-high 95 points with Pittsburgh in 2000-01.
Kovalev's troubles looked only to be deepening last summer when, on a visit to one of his biggest fans in eastern Quebec, he took the local mayor's prized motorcycle for a spin and crashed it. He wasn't badly hurt and said he would pay for the damages.
But what looked like off-ice trouble may actually have been a sign of renewed commitment to the Canadiens, to whom he is under contract through 2008-09 at US$4.5 million per year.
A licensed pilot, he found the time and effort to fly his own plane out to the Gaspe region to visit the fan during the off-season.
And from the first day of training camp, it was clear he was looking to put 2006-07 behind him.
"He's been a positive for everybody on the ice," said Carbonneau.
Kovalev had four goals and 10 assists and was plus-7 in 14 games in December.