“I’m excited for him, excited for the opportunity,” Ovechkin said. “And he’s a good fit for our team, brings some depth, brings lots of options to play with, so it’s good.”
Ovechkin said the two have joked about what it would be like to play on the same NHL team — they have played together on the national team — and they had dinner back in December, when rumors of Kovalchuk potentially coming to the Capitals started to swirl. They kept in touch, and finally, the jokes turned into a reality as they donned their matching yellow laces Tuesday at MedStar Capitals Iceplex.
“You never know what’s going to happen, but sometimes in the summer we would say, ‘It would be nice if you’re going to be one day on the Washington Capitals team,'" Ovechkin said.
When the news of the deal was official, Kovalchuk was already on the phone with Ovechkin and the rest of the Russians: Ilya Samsonov, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov.
The group was out to dinner, celebrating Samsonov’s 23rd birthday, which was Saturday. Kovalchuk said the group told him to be on the next flight out. He eventually spent the next day in Montreal, answering questions from the media, before flying to D.C.
Monday night, the group once again connected, all going out for a sushi dinner.
“I think after New Year’s was really positive,” Kovalchuk said. “I have a great time in Montreal, and I think it was one of the best decisions in my hockey life that I go there. And now I have a chance to play for a contender. It’s great opportunity.”
Kovalchuk initially will be used on the third line right wing alongside Carl Hagelin and Lars Eller. Richard Panik moved to the fourth line as a left wing, and Brenden Leipsic was pushed out of the lineup as a healthy scratch. That is subject to change, per Capitals Coach Todd Reirden. Right now, it is all about trying to find the right chemistry with the players and new lines.
While it appears Kovalchuk will be getting less ice time in Washington than in Montreal, where he averaged more than 18 minutes per game, the 36-year-old Russian is confident that if he continues to produce, he could see an uptick in minutes. The 6-foot-3, 222-pound veteran recorded six goals and seven assists in 22 games with the Canadiens and three goals and six assists in 17 games with the Los Angeles Kings this season.
“We’ll see,” Kovalchuk said. “You know, it all depends on how I’m going to play. If I’m playing well I might become the first line player. You never know.”
In addition to the connections with the other Russians on the team, Kovalchuk played on the Atlanta Thrashers with Reirden, who shared a story of inviting then-rookie Kovalchuk to his home for Thanksgiving in 2001. Reirden helped Kovalchuk with his English, while Kovalchuk taught Reirden some Russian phrases that are still useful today with now five Russians in the room.
“It’s great,” Kovalchuk said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why he is coaching now, because he taught me a lot when I was and 18 year old and it’s crazy. Times fly. His wife, she was pregnant with his boy, and now he is 17 years old and I am still hanging around.”
Read more on the NHL: