When the Penguins staff gathered to put together a game plan for the team's first-round playoff series against the Ottawa Senators last spring, there was a lot of excitement in the room.
" 'No Kovy. That's good for us,' " general manager Ray Shero remembered thinking.
Really good, as it turned out.
The Penguins beat the Senators in six games. The Senators weren't nearly as strong without winger Alex Kovalev, who was out with a knee injury.
Moral of the story?
If your team is in the playoffs, you don't want to see Kovalev on the other side.
That silence you hear this morning is coming from the Tampa Bay Lightning's room. No one in there could possibly be willing to argue the point. Not today. Not after Kovalev scored the big goal in the Penguins' 3-0 win in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Wednesday night.
"He's always had the ability to be a factor in the playoffs," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Kovalev. "It was not too big of a surprise when he got that goal."
Yes and no.
It wasn't the least bit surprising because of the postseason stats on the back of Kovalev's bubble-gum card. He had 44 goals and 98 points in 116 playoff games, by far the most production of any player on the Penguins or the Lightning.
But it was a little surprising because Kovalev hadn't exactly been lighting 'em up since joining the Penguins at the February trade deadline. He scored just two goals in 20 games, a big reason their power play was so inept for so long. He hadn't done much for the Senators before the deal, either, this season or in 2009-10. It was fair to wonder how much he had left at 38.
"The last couple of seasons I had, I definitely want to put behind me," Kovalev said. "It was important to me to start a new, fresh season. The playoffs are the most exciting time of the year. You have to give it everything you've got. That's not saying you don't do that during the regular season. But it's different now. You know you only have to win 16 games to win the Stanley Cup."
That's 15 games now for the Penguins, although they are taking a much narrower view of things. "We've won one game in the series. Get over it and move on. We still need to win three more," Shero said.
No matter what Kovalev does during the rest of this playoff run -- no matter how long it lasts -- his goal justified Shero's decision to bring him and his hefty salary on board for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. It came little more than six minutes into the third period at a time when there was a feeling in an amped Consol Energy Center that the Penguins and Lightning could play all night without putting the puck in the net. That's how brilliantly Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was playing. That's how tough goals are to come by for a Penguins team without injured stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The winning play started when Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina dropped Kovalev with a wicked slash to the left of goaltender Dwayne Roloson with such force that he lost his stick. Kovalev took forever to pick himself up, looking to the referees, almost begging for a call. "All you can do is get back up and keep playing," said Kovalev, who admitted he was angry that no penalty was issued. By the time he was back on his skates, Penguins defenseman Paul Martin had fought through traffic and chipped the puck off the boards to teammate James Neal at the left point. Neal's perfect cross-ice pass found Kovalev, who banged the shot into the net.
"You can't ask for a better ending than that," a satisfied Kovalev said.
Kubina got away with the slash but paid a big price. He was in position to break up Neal's pass but didn't have a stick to do it. To the naked eye, Kovalev's goal into a relatively open net appeared easy. But upon further review, it was anything but easy because of his shooting angle.
"He hardly had any room to get it in there," Shero said, holding his hands about a foot apart.
"There might have been a little smile on my face seeing No. 72 get that big first goal," a smiling Bylsma said.
Kovalev was emotional on the ice after the goal but was all business after the game. Maybe he was tired after getting 16 minutes, 15 seconds of ice time. His age, you now? More likely, he figured it was just another playoff game. He's supposed to score big goals at big times in big games.
But this goal had to be more special than most to Kovalev. He knows he's 38. He knows he doesn't have a lot of playoff games left, maybe none after this season. He knows how hard the goals were to get the past seven weeks.
"Sometimes, you get frustrated," Kovalev said. "You shoot the puck and nothing goes in. All you can do is keep pushing."
Kovalev shrugged. It was as if he knew: Eventually, they were going to go in for him.
It's the playoffs, right?
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.