MONTREAL (AP) – Star Canadiens wing Alexei Kovalev is expected to miss three to four weeks following knee surgery Tuesday.

He will operated on in Pittsburgh, where he once played for the Penguins. Team doctor David Mulder said there is no ligament damage and Kovalev’s right knee is “absolutely” stable.

Kovalev is second on the team in scoring with 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 18 games. He’s a major part of Montreal’s first line – and its top power-play unit – with captain Saku Koivu and wing Richard Zednik.

The Canadiens, 12-3-3 start and leading the Northeast Division, will be without Kovalev for the first time Tuesday night against Florida.

“It’s difficult to replace a player on your first line. … We have other players with the same style of depth and experience as Alex and it’s up to those younger players to take his place,” general manager Bob Gainey said Monday.

Montreal does not have depth at forward, with rookies Alexander Perezhogin, Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec.

Kovalev said he has been playing with pain since the start of the season.

“It was just getting worse and worse and we tried to avoid this kind of thing by doing different therapy and it looks like that just didn’t work,” Kovalev said.

during a conference call from the airport before leaving for Pittsburgh. “I decided I’d rather just get on with the surgery and not worry about it afterwards.”

Gainey said the team was aware of Kovalev’s problem, but doctors had hoped to remove the fluid with anti-inflammatory drugs. Kovalev experienced fluid buildup in his right knee four years ago.

“It’s been four years without a symptom,” Mulder said. “And I guess what we’re all hoping for is that we might prepare him for another four years.”

AP-ES-11-14-05 1657EST

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