One of the biggest differences between the Montreal Canadiens that finished last in Eastern Conference in 2011-12 and the Canadiens with home ice advantage in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs would be the presence of a healthy Andrei Markov.
Markov missed all but 20 games during the previous two seasons with serious knee injuries, but the defenseman came back to play all 48 games and inject a serious jolt of talent into the Canadiens back end.
He finished fifth on the Canadiens with 30 points, including 23 on the power play, and combined with Alexei Emelin to form a solid pairing that coach Michel Therrien could use in difficult situations.
But Emelin was lost for the season April 6, and Markov hasn't been the same since.
Paired with a variety of partners, Markov began looking slow, and he was increasingly targeted by opposing forwards seeking an easy path to the Canadiens net.
Markov was a minus-4 in 38 games with Emelin in the lineup, and was a minus-5 in 10 games after his partner injured his knee – Markov's minus-9 final rating was the worst on the Canadiens. He finished second on the team to Josh Gorges in total even-strength ice time for the season, but Markov led the team by being on the ice for 36 even-strength goals against, or 45.6 percent of Montreal's 79 even-strength goals allowed.
Markov's effectiveness opposite P.K. Subban on the Canadiens' top power-play unit makes him an important player, but his play at even strength has been slowly deteriorating all season. A possible reason for this is that between his stint with Chekhov Vityaz in the Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout and his full slate with Montreal, Markov has played 69 games this season, four more than he played in the previous three seasons combined.
At age 34 and playing on a knee that was reconstructed twice in a little more than a year, perhaps Markov is tired. Or perhaps he decided at one point in the season to begin saving himself for the playoffs, a theory that could be supported by his goal and two assists with a plus-3 rating in helping Montreal win its final two games at the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Canadiens have to hope the latter theory is true, because they lack the depth on defense to compensate for a Markov who needs to be sheltered from difficult situations. Having an effective Markov allows the rest of the defense corps of Subban, Gorges, Francis Bouillon, Raphael Diaz and one of Jarred Tinordi, Davis Drewiske or Yannick Weber to play more manageable minutes in situations that are suited to their abilities.
When Markov is at his best, he can be a difference-maker. But the same is true when he's off his game.
For the Canadiens to go deep in the playoffs, Markov will need to be a positive influence on the team.
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