MONTREAL - While the entire country had reason to follow Team Canada in the men's Olympic hockey tournament, Montreal Canadiens fans had a particular interest in keeping a close eye on the Russian team as well.
That's because the Canadiens top defenceman Andrei Markov was suiting up for Russia even though he missed Montreal's final two games prior to the Olympic break with an injury that remains a mystery over two weeks later.
Markov was somewhat evasive after practice Monday when asked to describe his physical condition, both during the tournament and going forward with the Canadiens starting Tuesday night in Boston.
"That's a hard question for me," Markov said. "I feel OK. The next six weeks will be a challenge for us and it's going to be hard. We have to battle every game for a spot in the playoffs."
While he was hardly the only one on the Russian team who did not play up to his potential in finishing a disappointing sixth at the Olympics, Markov did not seem to have the same flair in Vancouver that he's displayed with the Canadiens in becoming one of the league's top defencemen.
He suffered a severe injury in Montreal's first game of the season, a severed tendon in his foot that originally looked like it would need three to four months to heal. Instead, Markov came back after only 10 weeks, returning Dec. 19 with two goals in a 3-0 Habs win over the Islanders.
He had three goals and 10 assists in his first 10 games back, but had only five assists in his final 15 before sitting out the Canadiens last two games before the Olympic break with that mystery injury.
Markov refused to use the ailment as an excuse for his play in the Olympics.
"We have a long season and it's not easy to play healthy in every game," he said. "Everybody has bruises and small injuries. That's part of the job and you have to live with that. We just have to prepare ourselves for every game, but if you step on the ice you have to play 100 per cent."
When asked if he was physically at full speed for the Olympic tournament, Markov admitted that's generally not information you volunteer to your coaching staff.
"You can't say that," he said. "It's not as if I'm going to say, 'No, I'm not 100 per cent.' Like I said, when you step on the ice, you have to play at 100 per cent."
Habs coach Jacques Martin said he was not particularly concerned with Markov's health and that he didn't feel his ace defenceman played that poorly in Vancouver. He noted that Markov was second in ice time for the Russian team's defence, behind only Sergei Gonchar of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It's that part of the season where guys have to play hurt," Martin said. "He's practised with us the last two days and he should be ready to play Tuesday."
Martin also announced that Carey Price would get the start in goal in Boston on Tuesday, one day before the NHL's trade deadline. The announcement was not a surprise, considering Montreal's other goalie Jaroslav Halak was still trying to make his way back from Vancouver after leading his native Slovakia to a solid fourth-place finish at the Olympics.
Speculation has run rampant all season about whether Halak or Price - both restricted free agents at the end of the season - will be traded by Wednesday. Though it died down a little when new GM Pierre Gauthier said he wanted to keep both his goalies, it's clear that rumours will continue to swirl until the 3 p.m. Wednesday deadline passes.
Price said Monday he feels the current situation with him sharing the load with Halak is what's best for the team, though he admits that sometimes having two goalies who feel they deserve to play can lead to tension between them.
"In this case, we both think we're pretty good goalies, we both want to play, we both push each other to be better," Price said. "Things will work itself out in the off-season. Now we're both concentrating on helping our team make the playoffs and do well in the playoffs. You don't want to just make the playoffs, you want to make some noise in the playoffs and both of us will have to play well for that to happen."
While Markov was still trying to digest his disappointment in the Russian team's poor performance at the Olympics, there was a fair amount of ribbing going on between the Canadians in the Habs room and Americans Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Paul Mara and Hal Gill.
Gionta said he lost a couple of bets when the U.S. lost 3-2 in overtime to Canada in the gold medal game, though he wouldn't admit who they were with or what was at stake.
Still, he felt the American performance with such a young team bodes well for that country's Olympic future.
"They played extremely well," said Gionta, a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2006. "They have a lot of talent over there and (goalie Ryan) Miller played very well. It's a step in the right direction for USA Hockey. It's just a matter of doing it consistently now."