Nikolai Kovalenko’s perfect reaction to Avalanche debut — ‘Everybody’s so big’

A solid debut for the Russian.

Nikolai Kovalenko in middle of image looking happy with speech bubble: "This isn't the KHL" , Colorado Avalanche logo, hockey rink in background

Nikolai Kovalenko made his long-anticipated Colorado Avalanche debut in the team’s 5-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets in Game 4 of their Western Conference first-round series on Sunday afternoon. And although the Russian didn’t make too much of an impact in the contest, seeing just over seven minutes of ice time, he showed some flashes of offensive skill in his first NHL tilt.

He also hilariously revealed how the league is different than the Kontinental Hockey League, the top flight of hockey in his native Russia, where he’s played since 2017.

“It’s so fast. Everybody’s so big, physical guys. I tried hits, but they not falling, didn’t falling,” the rookie said afterwards, according to Colorado Hockey Now’s Evan Rawal. “I just try. I would like to [say] thank you for everybody, because everybody help me, support. Coach told me it’s still a game. It’s crazy.”

It’s going to take some adjustments for the 24-year-old, who recently joined the American Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles in their short postseason. That ended after two games, opening the door for the son of longtime NHLer Andrei Kovalenko to join the big league club.

“It’s a crazy moment for me. It’s a big arena, more fun. It’s incredible,” Kovalenko continued. “Yeah, I like. Why not? It’s a great experience for me. It’s first time jumping in the playoffs.”

A former sixth-round pick by the Avalanche in 2018, Kovalenko was called up on Sunday after scoring three points in four regular-season games with the Eagles and adding another point in two postseason contests.

Kovalenko helps Avalanche put Jets on brink

Members of the Colorado Avalanche celebrate defeating the Winnipeg Jets following game four of the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Kovalenko is a high-skill player, evident by his 35 points in 42 games this season in the KHL. Whether or not that will translate to the North American game is as yet unknown — but he has the full confidence of his new head coach.

“We’ve liked what we’ve seen. We would have liked to get a look at him in the regular season,” Jared Bednar said after Colorado’s huge Game 4 win, per Rawal.

“He plays the right side and is a left shot. He’s a competitive guy. That’s why we called him up. We feel like he’s a good option to be able to step up and help, and he did. I liked his minutes. He didn’t play a lot, but he was responsible and took care of the puck. He has a physicality to his game. He’s not scared of the moment. He’s excited to be here.”

Kovalenko replaced an injured Joel Kiviranta in Game 4, and there’s no guarantee he will slot into the lineup again in Game 5. But it looks like the Russian could be here to stay.

“I think he was very good. Solid,” Yakov Trenin said of his new teammate’s debut. “A couple of good hits and a couple of good defensive plays. A smart player overall. Just good to root for him. I can’t imagine how hard it is to jump right into the playoffs. … He definitely looks mentally strong. He didn’t panic.”

The Avalanche’s high-flying offense has been on full display in Round 1, and if they can unlock Kovalenko in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it would add yet another element to the squad’s potent attack.

A chance to eliminate the Jets in Game 5 awaits on Tuesday.

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