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Despite Markov's injury, Habs remain confident

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens gave no update Monday on the status of star defenseman Andrei Markov, stating more tests need to be done to determine the extent of what the team is calling a lower-body injury suffered Saturday in a collision with Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Markov appeared to hurt his right knee on the play, the same one he had surgery on to repair a torn ACL last May. That injury kept Markov out of action for nearly five months.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past where a long-term injury to Markov would mean the Canadiens' chances for success would plummet. As recently as last season, when Markov missed 35 regular-season games with a lacerated tendon in his foot and another two with an undisclosed injury, the Canadiens barely kept their heads above water, going 14-20-3.

With Markov in the lineup, the Canadiens were 25-13-7.

When he went down with that right knee injury in Game 1 of the Canadiens' second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring, many expected the trend would continue. However, the Canadiens won that series in seven games, and when Markov missed the first 10 games this season while still recovering from last spring's surgery Montreal went 7-2-1 in his absence.

"It's a big loss for our team. He's probably one of the best defensemen in the National Hockey League. Other teams are probably happy about it because we'll need some other guy to step up and play. With our defense, I think we've played pretty solid all season long." -- Jaroslav Spacek

Now that Markov could miss time again, the Canadiens remain a confident group while they wait to hear just how serious the injury might be.

"It's a team game and we have more depth on defense," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said Monday when asked why his team has improved its ability to play without Markov. "We've played better 5-on-5 all year and it's only in the last week that our power play began working. Our penalty killing has been good all year and our goaltending's been excellent."

There are reports that Markov's injury could cost him three months or more. The Canadiens only would confirm that Markov will miss Tuesday's home game against the Philadelphia Flyers, who eliminated the Canadiens from the playoffs in last spring's Eastern Conference Finals. The Flyers currently hold a one-point lead for second place in the conference.

Alexandre Picard will be in the lineup Tuesday against Philadelphia for the first time since Markov's return to the lineup. Picard played well in his nine games, posting a plus-7 rating that has him tied for second on the team in that category.

"With the way the team was playing and the defense was playing, I knew it would take an injury for me to get back in the lineup," Picard said. "You never want to see someone get injured, but it's part of the business and you have to be ready when you're called upon."

A big reason why the Canadiens were able to absorb Markov's loss in last season's playoffs and earlier this season was the emergence of rookie P.K. Subban. He has the ability to take over the game on any given shift, and with Markov possibly gone for the long-term, he may be called upon to do it more often.

Subban, never one lacking in confidence, relishes moments just like this one.

"When I'm asked to step up my game is usually when I play my best," Subban said. "One thing that I've learned in hockey is when you get too comfortable and you're playing well you can get complacent out there. Sometimes when the coach is asking you to step up and play better that's when you get excited to play again because they need me to play well."

While Subban likely will take on a bigger role in Markov's absence, the players that will see their roles change the most will be veterans Jaroslav Spacek and Roman Hamrlik. They draw the tough assignments for Martin -- they were matched against Henrik and Daniel Sedin during Montreal's 2-0 win against Vancouver last Tuesday -- and that role will be magnified if Markov misses a lot of games.

"It's a big loss for our team," Spacek said. "He's probably one of the best defensemen in the National Hockey League. Other teams are probably happy about it because we'll need some other guy to step up and play. With our defense, I think we've played pretty solid all season long."

Ultimately, however, the Canadiens may require goaltender Carey Price to pick up some of the slack in Markov's absence as well. It would be tough for him to top the week he just had, where Price went 3-0-0 to earn the NHL's First Star of the Week.

"It's not just me, it's our team that's playing well," Price said. "Everybody keeps talking about me, but it's not just me out there. It's our whole team."

The Canadiens will be relying on that team concept to shine even more if their best defenseman is forced out with another injury. But unlike in the past, the Canadiens have proven they can overcome it if it should come to pass.
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