This question was asked of Pittsburgh Penguins players: If Mario Lemieux and Alexei Kovalev were airlifted to a frozen pond in northern Ontario, given sticks and a puck and asked to do the most spectacular hockey tricks imaginable, who would win—Mario the Magician or the Sorcerer's Apprentice?
There were wows and hedges and political calculations ("He signs my checks," fourth-line wing Steve McKenna said of Lemieux, who also owns the team), and in the end the vote was too close to call. Lemieux has spent his career undressing the NHL's best defensemen with his savvy and slickness. But can he drop to his knees just inside the blue line and saucer the puck 40 feet in the air so it lands on top of the net? Can he, at full speed, put a skate atop the puck, pirouette almost 360 degrees and kick the puck ahead to himself? Kovalev, a right wing, does both of those things.
The swing vote came from an unexpected precinct. "I'd say Kovy," Lemieux admitted. "He's the best stickhandler I've ever seen. Quickness. Hands. A much better stickhandler than me. He's got the talent to be the best player in the world."
Kovalev's game is all curlicues and grace notes: rococo art in an age of dump-in simplicity. He doesn't play hockey, he ornaments it. There are eight million stories of his virtuosity in the naked dressing room, but a favorite is the hat trick he completed against the New York Islanders last season by bursting down the wing, shooting off his back foot as he crossed the goal line and beating Garth Snow high to the short side from a wicked angle—a shot that drew a stare from Snow and a laugh from Kovalev. He raised the bar, then roofed the puck under it.
"How do painters come up with ideas?" Kovalev asked rhetorically as he picked at a chicken Caesar salad one recent afternoon. "Maybe something comes into their heads, and they think about it, and that's what they end up painting. Same thing with me. Something comes into my head, and I'll try it. It looks funny and unreal at first, but then you keep doing it, and it becomes easier."
Kovalev is 6'1" and 221 pounds of hockey inventiveness, the perfect marriage of man, stick and puck. Through Sunday he was tied for second in the NHL, with 39 points, and first in aesthetics. "He's one of those guys you watch even when he's on the ice by himself," Penguins defenseman Jamie Pushor says. "You can watch a guy shoot hoops alone, but you generally wouldn't watch a hockey player. Except him."
THE BACKGROUND: an indifferent crowd on a November night in Sunrise, Fla. The foreground: the Pittsburgh line of Kovalev, Lemieux and wing Aleksey Morozov. The scene: The three Penguins come out whipping the puck around against the Florida Panthers with such brio that those in charge of the in-house music during stoppages should dispense with the rock and roll and play Sweet Georgia Brown. The only trick Kovalev doesn't pull in the first period is the confetti-in-the-water-bucket move. Three times in one play he beats defenseman Ivan Majesky, who chases him around the left face-off circle like a golden retriever.
But in the second period the masterstrokes turn into fingerpainting, a mess of blind passes. This is art for art's sake, not hockey's, and it is the sort of display that has marred Kovalev's audacious work throughout his pro career, which began with the New York Rangers in 1992-93. Lately he has become a superior finisher—he scored 44 goals in 2000-01, 18 more than his previous best—and over the past two-plus seasons he has ranked sixth in shots, having overcome an innate Russian reticence about firing the puck. Yet in weak moments he chooses style over substance.
"His game has changed," Penguins defenseman Ian Moran says. "But he still enjoys beating guys one-on-one too much." For instance, against Florida on this night Kovalev runs out of room along the boards and drops a soft pass to Lemieux that results in a turnover and a four-on-two rush by the Panthers. Kovalev makes almost no effort to get back into the play. He is out of gas at the end of a shift that lasts too long, which recalls an incident eight years ago that became the signature piece in his portfolio.
Kovalev scored the goal that preceded Mark Messier's famous hat trick in Game 6 of the 1994 semifinals between the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils; and the next postseason he lay on the ice long enough after getting slashed for the referee to stop play and disallow a Quebec Nordiques' goal; but the most memorable story about him involves a game against the Boston Bruins in 1994. Kovalev had been overstaying his standard 45-second shift so routinely that in the third period, when he finally skated to the bench for a change, the exasperated Rangers coach, Mike Keenan, waved at him to stay on the ice. This went on and on until the game was over. Depending on whom you believe, Kovalev played a record 11- or nine- or four-minute shift. Keenan has always maintained that until his teammates clued him in following the match, Kovalev thought he was being rewarded rather than punished. Kovalev, however, insists he had it figured out within three minutes.