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What If the Montreal Canadiens Still Had Ilya Kovalchuk?

What if the Montreal Canadiens had kept Ilya Kovalchuk this season instead of trading him?

Today, the Montreal Canadiens lost to the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 2-0. That loss puts them in a huge bind, now being behind in the best-of-seven series to the Flyers three games to one.

Under the same roof in the hub city of Toronto, the Washington Capitals faced extinction from the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs but pulled out a 3-2 Game 4 victory to hang in there for at least one last game against the New York Islanders. They, too, trail in their series three games to one.

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Ilya Kovalchuk: This Season’s Missing Link between the Capitals and the Canadiens

Both teams might be out of this season’s playoffs as early as the next game. So, why bring these teams up in the same breath? This season’s connection between the two teams is Ilya Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk is on the last legs – perhaps – of a long and successful NHL career. He’s been a bit of a gun-for-hire recently and has travelled from team to team as a team seeks some of the offensive firepower Kovalchuk can bring in spurts – just as he’s done many times during his NHL career.

In fact, to show something of his historic scoring prowess, in 926 NHL games, Kovalchuk has scored 443 goals and 433 assists for 876 points. He’s almost a point-a-game player over his long career in 2001 with the then Atlanta Thrashers.

Although he’s been around, there’s no doubt in my mind that Kovalchuk is as committed to his current team – the Washington Capitals – winning the Stanley Cup as any player on any team would be. In fact, way back in February, when it looked so clearly that the Canadiens were out of a playoff position, general manager Marc Bergevin asked Kovalchuk where he wanted to be traded before the trade deadline.

The 37-year-old asked to go to Washington because he believed (a) he’d fit in well on that roster and (b) the Capitals would have as good a chance to win the Stanley Cup as any team. And, for Kovalchuk that would be a big deal because it would have been his first time.

The Ilya Kovalchuk – Montreal Canadiens Too Brief Story

On January 3, after almost a month of Kovalchuk being without a contract, the Canadiens took a risk that no other NHL team seemed to want to risk when it signed Kovalchuk as a free agent after he and the Los Angeles Kings parted. In retrospect, looking back it was a no-brainer. Kovalchuk then played 22 games with the team and enjoyed his short time with the Canadiens so much that he says he still keeps in touch with some of his former Canadiens teammates.

In July, when Kovalchuk spoke about the Capitals, he noted: “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.”

And, true enough, Kovalchuk’s time with the Capitals was good enough. He played mostly on the Capitals’ third line and second power-play unit and scored a goal and three assists in seven games before the season was paused on March 12. But, as Canadiens fans know well, he was a revelation in Montreal and hit the Canadiens ice like a storm.

After signing a one-year contract with the Habs, he scored 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in his 22 games. Among those scores included three game-winning goals.

Then he was traded to Washington.

Related: Canadiens Are Already Winners of 2020 NHL Playoffs

Imagine: Let’s Twist the Canadiens History Just a Bit

One wonders if, had Canadiens general manager Bergevin known there was a chance his team would make the postseason – even the play-in series in which they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, would he have traded Kovalchuk for a third-round draft pick? At the time, it seemed like a steal but now – hmmm.

The Canadiens had one amazing asset headed into the postseason, and that was future Hall of Fame goalie Carey Price. And, Price has done his part for sure. He’s been stingy, but a team has to score to win and, with the exception of a 5-0 victory in Game 2 against the Flyers, the Canadiens haven’t mounted much of an attack on the Flyers.

That’s where Kovalchuk comes in. While he doesn’t have much of a role with the Capitals, he would have had a much larger role with the Canadiens. In fact, being a scorer – even proving he could still do it this season – with playoff experience, don’t you just wonder if he might have been a bit of a wildcard that could have added to the Canadiens attack?

I do.

I personally would have loved to see Kovalchuk have a much larger role for the Canadiens than his much smaller role with the Capitals. Although it will take a bit of a miracle for either team to rebound from 3-1 series deficits, who’s to say with Price in net and Kovalchuk potting a score or two if the Flyers/Canadiens series might have been different?

Alas, it would have been a long-shot; but, what if it could’ve happened.

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