VANCOUVER – The Montreal Canadiens haven't had much to celebrate this season, but they found plenty of positive storylines during a 4-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on Saturday night.
Erik Cole scored twice, including the go-ahead goal 13 seconds into the third period, despite being without injured top-line center David Desharnais.
Carey Price stopped all 15 shots in the first period and 32 overall while playing in front of a large contingent of family and friends in his home province.
Blake Geoffrion, a fourth-generation Canadien, scored his first goal for a team his grandfather and great grandfather starred for during Hall of Fame careers.
No storyline was bigger, however, than the return of Montreal's top defenseman Andrei Markov after missing almost 16 months with a serious knee injury. And that was before the game. It only got better when the veteran Russian slid the puck across to P.K. Subban for a key 5-on-3 goal 5:20 into the third period.
"It was a big boost to the morale," said a beaming Price. "He's a first-class player and he moves the puck so well. When we're breaking the puck out, he just has the confidence with it and it makes a big difference. He's pretty irreplaceable."
Markov, who has only played seven games in the last two seasons as he tried to come back from two major knee surgeries and another arthroscopic procedure, averaged 55 points from 2005-2009, including a career-high 64 in 2008-09. But the 33-year-old only played 45 games in 2009-10 and just seven last season before tearing his ACL in a Nov. 13 game against Carolina.
His return included being on the ice for Ryan Kesler's opening goal 8:02 into the second period, but he set up Subban with a soft pass across the points, and evened up his plus-minus when he was on the ice for Cole's second goal, a rebound putback of his own shot off a 2-on-1 rush with 8:58 left to play.
"It was awesome, we just beat one of the strongest teams in the League," Markov said after finishing with 17:09 of ice time. "I felt good. The first few shifts, I had to adjust to the speed, but after that I felt good. It's going to take some time. I need a little bit more time to realize the speed of the game and to read the game."
However Markov felt about his own game, there was no question in talking to his teammates that the Canadiens got a boost from his first game this season.
"I'm sure it was a big positive for us getting him back and the guys are quite happy for him after going through what he went through and the professionalism he carried himself with," Habs coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "It's very difficult."
After teeing up a Markov pass through Roberto Luongo's legs, Subban agreed.
"When he's healthy, he's top-three among the best defensemen in the League," he said. "When he comes back, it's a boost of confidence for our team. It's pretty amazing to see a guy like that (come back), but it's great to be able to learn from him and be out there on the power play with him. He's an unbelievable passer."
It was the first time in almost a month that the Canadiens, who are last in the Eastern Conference, won consecutive games after beating Edmonton – but losing Desharnais to a lower-body injury – on Thursday.
For the Canucks, it was more of the same of late.
They have just one win in four games and are 2-3-2 in their last seven, falling three points behind St. Louis atop the Western Conference. Luongo finished with 31 stops and top-line twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin were split up at times as their scoring slump extended to eight games with just one assist.
"(Coach Alain Vigneault has) got to do something," captain Henrik Sedin said of being split up. "It's been a while now where we haven't produced. … If your top guys aren't scoring with the minutes we've got, it's tough to win games."
Cole's goal early in the third didn't help. After his initial shot off the wing hit the stick of Canucks' defenseman Alexander Edler and came right back to him, Cole somehow shoveled the puck through Luongo from a sharp angle in tight.
"Obviously Louie gives up a bad goal and we didn't respond well at all," Vigneault said. "We should have responded the right way, threw two pucks in the stands (for delay of game penalties and the 5-on-3) and they made us pay. (Luongo) gave up a bad goal tonight. But they out-chanced us 12-2 in the third period."
Vigneault was also critical of Edler, who was beaten off the puck by rookie Louis Leblanc, recalled because of the injury to Desharnais, before firing it through the crease and defenseman Kevin Bieksa to Geoffrion for a tap-in under Luongo.
It was the first NHL goal in almost a year, and the first ever for the Canadiens for Geoffrion, whose great-grandfather was Howie Morenz and paternal grandfather was Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion -- both Hall of Famers in Montreal. The first fourth-generation NHL player -- his father, Danny, played in the late 1970s and early '80s, including a brief stint with Montreal -- was acquired by the Canadiens from the Predators on Feb. 17 and called up from the AHL 10 days later.
"It's a great feeling because, 1) It's been a while since I've scored in the NHL, and 2) For obvious reasons with my family history to get that goal and help the team to win," said Geoffrion, who was still playing for Nashville when he scored the last on March 20, 2011. "Like they say, God works in mysterious ways. This year has been a lot of big ups and downs for me -- mostly downs – and this is one of the bright spots, getting my first goal of the year and my first for the Habs."
And it came one day before the sixth anniversary of his grandfather's passing.
"It's a day my Nana always sends us an email and just says 'Say hi to Papi and say your prayers,'" Geoffrion said. "I miss him every day. Now I got one for him."
He was quick to thank Price for making sure it was in a winning cause.
The Canucks came out firing, outshooting the Canadiens 15-5 in the first, but Price stopped them all before adding his best saves early in the second -- a great sliding blocker stop on a power-play tip and forced David Booth wide on a breakaway before having little chance on Kesler’s goal off an odd-man rush.
"We knew they were going to come out pretty hard in this building but we just kind of put up a barricade and didn't let them get in the inside," said Price.
It added another great storyline to a night full of them for the Habs.
"I love being here," Price said. "It's nice to be back at home and breathe the mountain air."