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Kovalev, Huberdeau Bridge Age Gap For Panthers

Wednesday, 01.23.2013 / 1:48 PM ET / News
Associated Press
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Kovalev, Huberdeau Bridge Age Gap For Panthers
Forwards Alex Kovalev, Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller celebrate Huberdeau's first NHL goal from Saturday's game against Carolina.

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - Alex Kovalev's first NHL appearance came before Jonathan Huberdeau was born. For that matter, it even predates the first game in Florida Panthers' history.

He's a tad experienced, to put it mildly.

At 39, with his name already etched on the Stanley Cup and with 429 goals - and counting - to his credit, there isn't much more for Kovalev to prove on the ice. And at 19, with one goal and three career games under his belt, Huberdeau figures to still have plenty to learn about playing the game at its highest level.

So the Panthers decided to put them together on the same line for training camp. And the potential is already eye-popping.

Kovalev and Huberdeau both had three-point efforts in the Panthers' season-opening win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night. Kovalev is more than twice Huberdeau's age, and the players might hail from different eras, but an impressive training camp and solid opening-night together suggests that the Panthers might be on to something.

"You can tell he's a talented kid," Kovalev said."He's really patient with the puck. He can hold on to it. Pretty strong on his feet and it's really fun to play with a player of that type. You know if you give it to him, you'll get the puck back. You're not worried about helping him out. He's strong enough to make the plays. That makes the job easier."

In a way, Kovalev and Huberdeau are both dealing with high expectations.

Neither was with Florida last season when the Panthers ended a 12-year playoff drought by winning the Southeast Division title. If there was a knock on the Panthers a year ago, it was a lack of goal-scoring prowess, which was perhaps most notable in shootouts.

Huberdeau was the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, and has long been thought of as Florida's future. Kovalev, who wasn't in the NHL last season, wanted to prove that he can still play. Together, one might help the other live up to those standards.

"It's great. They're coming along. They have some chemistry," Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell said. "They're smart players. Everybody wants to play with smart players."

Campbell's assessment of Kovalev: "He definitely has some stuff left and can bring stuff to our game."

And his thoughts on Huberdeau: "Sometimes you don't notice him and all of a sudden it's in the back of the net or he makes a great play."

Take the excitement of coming off a playoff season, and add a second line like Kovalev and Huberdeau being centered by Peter Mueller to that mix, and it's easy to see why the Panthers have big hopes in 2013.

"For sure, it's crazy," Huberdeau said. "Having the chance to be on the same line, he's a great player, Mueller's a great player too, and it's crazy to be on the line with them."

Kovalev wasted no time making an impression on his teammates.

During training camp, no shortage of Panthers - forwards, defensemen and goaltenders - raved about Kovalev's skills. Defenseman Keaton Ellerby found out there's more to him than just fancy stickwork.

On the first day of camp, Kovalev and Ellerby collided. Ellerby went flying.

"It was like running into a wall," Ellerby said.

"All that Russian training," Kovalev responded.

The Panthers and Kovalev had been talking for a while before finally getting together on a deal to give him a tryout for camp. By the end of the first practice, it became apparent that the tryout contract wouldn't be Kovalev's last with Florida.

"I can still stickhandle. I can still skate. I can still make plays. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here," Kovalev said. "I'd be wasting my time and someone else's time. I know I can match anybody in this locker room. I can still play this game. That's why I'm here."

He's also here to be a mentor of sorts.

Kovalev pulled Huberdeau aside before Saturday night's opener for a quick pep talk, someone with about 20 more years and 1,300 more games of experience deciding to offer a bit of wisdom about how to truly make the jump from juniors to the NHL.

"I said to him, the game is the same," Kovalev said. "Maybe just a faster pace, maybe bigger guys, but the game is still the same."

Huberdeau's first shot after that chat? His first NHL goal, a play set up in large part by Kovalev.

The Panthers kept rolling from there, winning their opener 5-1.

"Kovi missed a year and came back," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "And he looked like the guy I saw in Montreal."

Huberdeau was reminded of those Kovalev days as well. Huberdeau grew up around Montreal, where he closely studied the way Kovalev played the game with the Canadiens, with whom he played from 2004 through 2009.

He has a little better view of the way Kovalev plays now.

"Every time he'd take a slap shot, it would go in," Huberdeau said. "I remember one time he got hit, lost his glove and just went around the guy and kept the puck. That was unbelievable. He can do a lot of stuff on the ice."

Apparently, he still can. And in this 48-game regular season, his skill might go a long way.

"We just have to play every game like it's our last game, like a playoff game, and that's what it's going to be, I think," Kovalev said. "For me, I'm in good shape, and I don't see a problem keeping up with these guys."

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 p - WSH 82 56 18 8 252 193 120
2 x - PIT 82 48 26 8 245 203 104
3 y - FLA 82 47 26 9 239 203 103
4 x - NYR 82 46 27 9 236 217 101
5 x - NYI 82 45 27 10 232 216 100
6 x - TBL 82 46 31 5 227 201 97
7 x - PHI 82 41 27 14 214 218 96
8 x - DET 82 41 30 11 211 224 93
9 BOS 82 42 31 9 240 230 93
10 CAR 82 35 31 16 198 226 86
11 OTT 82 38 35 9 236 247 85
12 NJD 82 38 36 8 184 208 84
13 MTL 82 38 38 6 221 236 82
14 BUF 82 35 36 11 201 222 81
15 CBJ 82 34 40 8 219 252 76
16 TOR 82 29 42 11 198 246 69

STATS

2015-2016 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Jagr 79 27 39 23 66
J. Jokinen 81 18 42 25 60
A. Barkov 66 28 31 18 59
J. Huberdeau 76 20 39 17 59
V. Trocheck 76 25 28 15 53
R. Smith 82 25 25 19 50
A. Ekblad 78 15 21 18 36
N. Bjugstad 67 15 19 -8 34
B. Campbell 82 6 25 31 31
B. Pirri 52 11 13 -4 24
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 35 19 6 .922 2.35
A. Montoya 12 7 3 .919 2.18

 
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