Alexei Kovalev breaks out of the shadow of two stars in Pittsburgh
The consensus among players polled by SI at the Ail-Star Game earlier this month was that either one of a pair of Penguins, Jaromir Jagr or line-mate Mario Lemieux, would wind up leading the league in goals. No one cited Pittsburgh's second-line sensation Alexei Kovalev, who could be the man to beat.
After scoring his second straight hat trick in the Penguins' 5-4 win over the Devils last Saturday—including the game-winner on a neat backhand 18 seconds into overtime-he led Pittsburgh with 33 goals, two behind NHL leader Pavel Bure of the Panthers. Says Penguins defenseman Marc Bergevin, "Mario Kovalev? Alex Lemieux? I don't know what to call him."
Kovalev's nine-year career, including the first seven with the Rangers, has been marked by streaks of brilliance but also by such inconsistency that he had never scored more than 26 goals in a season. Now, at age 27, he's tapping into his dazzling potential night after night. "Naturally, the top line gets the attention," says Penguins assistant coach Rick Kehoe. "But we've got two lines that are hard to stop."
Kovalev has found a home alongside center Martin Straka (59 points) and left wing Robert Lang (56), the trio that carried Pittsburgh before Lemieux's return from retirement on Dec. 27. Kovalev is also the only Penguin who plays on the top power-play and the top penalty-killing units. "He never wants to come off the ice," says Kehoe. "He has so much strength, so much stamina."
An imposing 6'2" and 215 pounds, Kovalev maintains his muscle partly through drills that include sets of sit-ups and pushups after every game—even when that means doing them on the floor of the visitors' locker room as hordes of media mill about. That dedication has been noted by Lemieux, the Penguins' primary owner ("Kovalev's unbelievable," he says), even as he braces for the consequences: Kovalev earns $2.3 million and will be a restricted free agent after the season.
"I cannot control myself right now, I'm so happy," Kovalev said last Saturday. "I hope I stay like this for the rest of my career."
A Few Wrinkles To Iron Out
To put the thanklessness of a referee's job into perspective, consider that when SI recently asked a Western Conference general manager to name the worst official in the NHL, he grumbled, "All of them." Hockey folks grouse about refereeing as a matter of course, and this season's complaints have focused on the shortcomings of the two-referee system, which the league began phasing in during the 1998-99 season. (This year, for the first time, all games are officiated by two referees.) While most players agree that the extra ref has helped cut down on fouls, they also cite a lack of consistency within each game. "One guy calls one thing, the other guy calls another," says Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi.
A major difficulty has been finding a suitable pairing system. Young refs tend to call more penalties than older refs do, and when they work together, it exacerbates the inconsistency. "That's just how it is," says the league's director of officiating Andy Van Hellemond, who was an NHL referee for 24 seasons. "I was much more aggressive when I started than I was at the end."