Ilya Kovalchuk active in debut for Canadiens

Fresh after morning skate, Claude Julien wasn't quite sure what to expect from Ilya Kovalchuk in his Montreal Canadiens' debut Monday.

Montreal's coach was honest and sincere about expectations for his newly signed veteran forward as his team fights to get back into playoff position in the Eastern Conference. But he also knew that Kovalchuk hadn't played meaningful hockey in nearly two months.

"We're giving him a great opportunity," Julien said, "and hopefully, he responds."

So far, so good.

Kovalchuk was quite active in his Montreal debut, playing on a line with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar against Winnipeg, registering an assist on 25 shifts and 19:25 of ice time. He finished with four shots on net and a surprising six hits. Julien even showed confidence in Kovalchuk late, playing the veteran forward on the defensive point during the Canadiens' power play with three minutes remaining in regulation.

But it didn't translate into a win. Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp scored for the Jets en route to a 3-2 victory. However, Kovalchuk's tenacity in the corners and energy level were positive signs as the Canadiens move forward.

"I liked how we fought until the end and never gave up. It says a lot," Kovalchuk said. "It's a bump in the road, but we're going to keep working and getting better. Tomorrow is a new day and a must-win for us."

Montreal on Friday signed Kovalchuk, 36, to a two-way contract for the league minimum, which will pay him $700,000 in the NHL and $70,000 in the AHL. He joined the team over the weekend but did not play in the Canadiens' 3-2 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday in Montreal.

Two days later, he was greeted warmly by the Bell Centre faithful in warmups and throughout the game.

"It's been an unbelievable few days so far, the way the fans respond, and the guys in the locker room," he said. "I appreciate it very much, it's very important to me."

Kovalchuk returned to the NHL last season after a five-year stint in the KHL. The former 50-goal scorer and three-time All Star for the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils was chased by several teams, but he ultimately signed a three-year, $18.25 million deal with the Los Angeles Kings in summer 2018.

Kovalchuk had just 16 goals and 18 assists in 64 games last season and struggled to find a top role -- especially when the Kings made a coaching change from John Stevens to Willie Desjardins. The Kings, a bottom feeder in the Pacific Division who are now entering a rebuild, hired Todd McLellan this offseason, and Kovalchuk didn't fare much better. He had just three goals and nine points in 17 games before the Kings made him a healthy scratch for nearly six weeks, efforting to trade him.

Ultimately, Los Angeles placed Kovalchuk on waivers in December, shortly after paying him a $2.65 million bonus. When no team claimed him, Kovalchuk became a free agent. He said he still had a desire to play in North America and wanted to sign with a contender. Enter the Canadiens, who are six points out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

"He will be a key part for our team, and he was dialed in right away, right when the puck dropped," Danault said. "He was good tonight."

Kovalchuk was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2001 draft by the Thrashers and has played in 897 career NHL games, scoring 436 goals and 859 points.