MONTREAL (AP)—Alex Kovalev wasn’t sure how the Bell Centre crowd would react when he returned from a two-game banishment for his sometimes disappointing play.
But the 21,273 fans gave him a rousing ovation in the warmups, and he responded with a goal and two assists in Montreal’s 5-3 victory over Ottawa on Saturday.
“It’s nice when you come back and get that much support,” Kovalev said. “I didn’t know what the expect. “But I’m a different person now. I have that hankering to play.”
With the team mired in a slump, general manager Bob Gainey to told Kovalev to stay home from a road trip and think about the listless play that has derailed his season.
“The most important thing was that I was able to get the bad thoughts out of my mind that have been building up all year,” Kovalev said. “You try different things and nothing works and then you get confused, but in the last few days I’ve been able to clear my mind. I made a joke with my teammates—I said it feels like I just got traded here.”
Kovalev drew an ovation after he set up Tomas Plekanec’s power-play goal 2:23 in.
The Russian right wing got an even bigger cheer when he scored an unassisted goal at 5:38 to put the Canadiens up 2-0, and more adulation when he dove to clear a puck out of the zone while killing a penalty moments later.
“They’ve been so much behind me and it’s incredible,” said Kovalev, the All-Star game MVP last month in Montreal. “I just don’t have really enough words to describe it.”
Kovalev assisted on Patrice Brisebois’ power-play goal in the second that made it 4-0. The Canadiens were 3-for-4 on the power play.
Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau wasn’t surprised to see the results of Kovalev’s sabbatical, noting that “when he wants to play hard and work, he’s a really good player.”
“The only problem is now everyone is going to ask for three days off,” Carbonneau said, joking.
Canadiens backup Jaroslav Halak made 44 saves.
Montreal had dropped 12 of 15, including a 5-4 loss in Pittsburgh on Thursday night to finish a season-high six-game road trip 1-4-1.
Kovalev rejoined the team at practice Friday, though his return was overshadowed by a newspaper report that three Canadiens players had been linked socially to a man arrested on drug charges.
Dany Heatley scored twice for Ottawa, which has lost three in a row following a season-high five-game winning streak.
“We knew they were going to come out one way or the other, and they came out strong and built on their momentum,” Senators interim coach Cory Clouston said. “Obviously the Kovalev goal kind of compounded the momentum with all he’s gone through.”
Jarkko Ruutu and Heatley scored in the second to cut it to 4-2.
Chris Campoli assisted on both second-period goals in his Ottawa debut. The defenseman and center Mike Comrie were acquired from the New York Islanders on Friday in a trade for Dean McAmmond and a first-round draft pick.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson assisted on Heatley’s power-play goal late in the third in his return after sitting out Thursday’s 5-2 loss to Vancouver because of a broken jaw. Alfredsson, who wore a full face shield, was originally expected to miss at least a week after he was hit by a puck shot by Heatley in a 3-2 overtime loss in Colorado on Tuesday.
“They explained what can happen and if you get another blow to it, but then it’s up to me,” Alfredsson said. “I talked to them before the Vancouver game and it’s a fracture, but it will be four weeks at least until it’s fully healed. If I wait one week or 10 days it’s still not going to be healed, and I can handle the pain as it is.”
Kovalev helped Montreal jump out to a 1-0 lead when he set up Plekanec for a shot into an open right side. He made it 2-0 moments later when he stripped the puck from defenseman Chris Phillips in the Ottawa zone and continued toward the net before converting a shot from the inside edge of the right faceoff circle.
Schneider, reacquired by the Canadiens in a trade with Atlanta on Monday, scored for the second straight game when he drove a slap shot from the right point past Brian Elliott into the top left corner 3:25 into the second.
Alex Auld replaced Elliott, who stopped 14 of 17 shots.
Brisebois’ power-play goal at 6:47 made it 4-0.
Auld made 13 saves. … Comrie began his second stint with the Senators. He also played for Ottawa in 2007 when the team reached the Stanley Cup final. … Schneider, who began his career with the Canadiens, has points in each of his three games with Montreal, including an assist Wednesday night in a 4-3 overtime loss in Washington, his first game with the Canadiens since 1995.