By Matt Popchock

The shot that fell the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round of last Saturday’s shootout was like a bullet from a gun.

To be more precise, it was an AK-72.

It certainly makes up for the self-inflicted wounds created by the Penguins’ newest weapon that nearly killed them when the shootout was still a long way from fruition.

Penguin fans got exactly what they wanted over the weekend.  Alex Kovalev is back, practically at the expense of a couple cases of Smirnoff, and he helped the Pens earn a much-needed win on the road.

But what Kovy gave his old club in overtime he nearly took away in regulation.  The rest of this bumpy ride toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs will not necessarily be any different.

The Penguins were ahead 3-2 in the third period until Kovalev’s sloppy-looking and unnecessary pass to Jordan Staal at his own blue line caused a turnover that cost his team the lead.  Seconds later, Joffrey Lupul beat Marc-Andre Fleury with an underwhelming snap shot, and though Flower, in that instance, was the chief scapegoat, 38-year-old Kovalev was one of the Penguins trapped in transition on that play.

Caveat emtor…or, for the less-educated (i.e.: non-Latin speaking) masses, buyer beware.

I wonder if a younger, fresh-legged forechecker–like, say, Brooks Orpik–would have been quick enough to get back in time and at least draw a penalty to break up Lupul’s chance?  Just sayin’.

With Toronto playing some of its best hockey of the year and seizing momentum in front of a “Hockey Night in Canada” audience, the game seemed lost.  The Penguins hadn’t scored four goals, seemingly, since Kovy’s last stint in Pittsburgh, and they really had to fight for their first three.  As it turned out, the Penguins also benefited from a bad turnover on a Leafs power play and shaky goaltending by James Reimer to change the complexion of this game.

The way this season has soured, don’t be surprised if, moving forward, they’re not that lucky.

Once upon a time, Alex Kovalev had two of the best hands in the NHL, and having one of the greatest Penguin snipers in recent history back in black and gold certainly can’t hurt.  Can it?

The bottom line is, this isn’t 2001 anymore, and whatever offense Kovy can still bring in his few remaining years might not make up for the fact that the banged-up Pens have to skate a month without their No. 1 blue-liner (Orpik), and what a liability the former All-Star demonstrated he can be in his own zone.

His last full season with the Penguins, the 2001-02 campaign, was one of the last times he finished with a positive plus-minus rating.  The only other time it happened since then was the Montreal Canadiens’ surprising 2007-08 season, when they climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, and Kovy’s  productivity has dropped every year since.

Like sage veterans Bill Guerin and Gary Roberts, also late-February acquisitions, Kovalev is being counted on to do more with less, to bring a lot to this team in a little bit of time.  For all Guerin and Roberts did, it didn’t take forever for their respective ages to catch up with them, and the same seems to be happening to Kovy.

Sure, the Pens will take offense any way they can get it until those who aren’t on long-term IR return, and until James Neal develops chemistry with his new mates.  At this point, fans probably don’t care if the puck goes in the net off Kovalev’s athletic supporter 20 times, let alone his stick, and historically, the Penguin sweater seems to be the one that fit him best.

History also suggests the days of the Old Seventy-Two-er being the same guy who championed the ever-dangerous “KLS” line with fellow Euro-stars Martin Straka and Robert Lang are long gone, and that there’s still plenty of time for Alex Kovalev to become this year’s Alex Ponikarovsky.  As tough as it is to erase this significant first impression from our minds, we must remember that two games is hardly enough time to pass final judgment upon any newcomer (or, in this case, an “old”-comer).

It reflects poorly upon Kovy’s new teammates to publicly express skepticism about whether he’ll fit in, as the Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi recently noted.  Right now, when it comes to bringing in a healthy forward with his resume, the Penguins aren’t in a position to speak out against anyone or anything.  Off the record, however, their collective point is well taken.

Dan Bylsma is a big believer in those who play a north-and-south style.  To this point “north and south” is a phrase that doesn’t necessarily exist in Kovalev’s vocabulary.  He’s a classic European goal-scorer, one who relies more on his skill set, including his supreme range and release, than his work ethic to put the puck in the net.

Granted, there’s little reason to believe work ethic will be an issue here in Pittsburgh.  Having said that, it’s worth reminding people that there was a time when the Canadiens, the most prestigious team in hockey history, a team with which Kovy initially prospered, basically told him to shut up and go away for a little while.

Will the same thing happen when Kovalev hits his first dry spell in Pittsburgh?  Probably not.  The Penguins could never hate him, no matter how ineffective he might ultimately be, because they’re too busy hating the hockey gods for placing this team in its current state.  But it’s not unusual for perimeter scorers like Kovy–such as Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan–who have played under Bylsma and not adapted well to his more aggressive offensive system to be frustrated out of town.

Once this season is over and Crosby and Malkin return at full capacity for the next campaign, Kovalev and his high salary presumably leave the ‘Burgh once again anyway, which once again leaves the close-to-the-cap Penguins with the same question mark on their depth chart they had before all this mess, barring a major free agent acquisition or two this summer.

Speaking of which, if the Penguins desire a longer-term (Eastern bloc) solution to their offensive problems, they might want to look in the direction of former first-round draftee Nikolai Zherdev, who recently cleared waivers and rejoined the Philadelphia Flyers, albeit probably against his will.  Questions of character have dogged his career, and he doesn’t seem happy with his role on his current team.

Sound familiar?  Furthermore, Zherdev is only a $2 million cap hit as we speak, making him much easier–and cheaper–to negotiate an extended deal with than Kovy.  In limited action Zherdev has 15 goals for the Flyers this year, which would already put him near the top of the Penguins’ present lineup; plus, he is an entire decade younger than Kovalev.

Hey, if an old, highly-touted Russian forward can benefit from a change of scenery, why can’t the same happen for a young, highly-touted Russian forward?

In the meantime, Alex Kovalev may look like an upgrade on paper, but the Penguins don’t just need him.  They need health, something they haven’t had since Christmastime.  Only when this team is back at full strength, Sid and Geno not withstanding, will we see it as something remotely resembling its best.  Only then will Kovy’s impact likely make a significant difference.

Until then, here’s hoping the AK-72 still has more firepower than the cap pistol Bylsma has been left to work with.

For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to listen to “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturdays on SportsRadio 93-7 The Fan!

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