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Healthy Habs Markov, Gionta could make difference

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens have made only a few minor additions to their roster this offseason, but that doesn't mean there won't be anything new about the team's opening-night lineup.

Some very important players were injured for significant portions of last season, one in a series of factors that led to the club finishing last in the Eastern Conference.

One of those pieces, defenseman Andrei Markov, arrived in Montreal on Thursday night and was skating with his teammates during an informal workout at the team's suburban practice facility Friday.

Another was captain Brian Gionta, whose last game was a year ago Thursday when he tore his biceps muscle against the St. Louis Blues.


Markov could be boost for Canadiens

By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor
The Montreal Canadiens are hoping that the return of their best defenseman, Andrei Markov, will help them erase the memory of last season's last-place finish in the East.

Missing its No. 1 defenseman and a captain are obstacles many teams would be unable to overcome, and though Gionta said he feels an injury to one player can't make that big a difference, when combined with a number of other negative things happening, the backward momentum can be overwhelming.

"No one person sways the outcome of games like that," Gionta said Friday. "The biggest thing is, we had a snowball effect last year, we started losing, guys started getting frustrated and it just kept compounding on top of each other and turned out the way it did. It just kept going downhill."

Markov could play a big role in helping to move things in the other direction this season.

After spending much of the past two years in rehab following back-to-back reconstructive surgeries on his right knee, Markov played 21 games with Vityaz Chekhov in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) this season before flying to Montreal on Thursday.

"I don't want to talk about my knee," Markov said. "That's in the past and I'm looking forward. I feel good right now."

Markov repeated the words "I'm looking forward" three times in about six minutes spent speaking to reporters Friday, because even though he played the final 13 games of the regular season with the Canadiens last year, he is obviously looking to this season as an opportunity to finally put his incredible run of bad luck behind him.

It began on opening night of the 2009-10 season when a foot tendon was lacerated by the skate of Canadiens goaltender Carey Price during a goalmouth scramble in Toronto. Then came Markov's first torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 1 of the second round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins when he fell awkwardly into the boards following a clean hit by Matt Cooke. Then, seven games into a comeback during the 2010-11 season, Markov got tied up with Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal and tore the ligament a second time.

Though a lot of people in the Canadiens' entourage are talking about the 2012-13 season being a fresh start, it probably rings truest for Markov.

"It's fun to be in the dressing room and to be on the ice with the guys," Markov said. "It was good for me to play a few games [in Russia] and get my conditioning. So I'm ready to go."

Gionta has barely played with Markov in his three seasons in Montreal, but he recognizes what a difference it would make having the 34-year-old defenseman back on the blue line.

"He's an extremely talented player, and it's been a huge hole back there not having him," Gionta said. "Having a healthy Markov is huge for our back end. It relieves some of the pressure on the guys who have been trying to fill [the hole]. He's just so smooth with the puck, you don't spend as much time in your own end when you have a D-man who can move the puck like that. The void that he can fill is huge."

Brian Gionta
Brian Gionta
Right Wing - MTL
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 15
SOG: 75 | +/-: -7

Gionta's absence last season also left a rather large hole on the Canadiens' second line.

Gionta scored 57 goals in 143 games over his first two seasons in Montreal, but last year he was struggling with eight goals in 31 games when he was injured against the Blues. The last time we saw Gionta in a Canadiens uniform, he was walking down the tunnel to the dressing room at the Bell Centre, violently throwing his stick in anger as if it were javelin.

"It was just pure frustration," Gionta said. "I knew what the injury was at the time and I knew it wasn't going to be good and I knew it would require surgery. It was just compounding everything: frustration from the season, frustration from the injury and knowing your season's over."

With Gionta gone, the second line centered by Tomas Plekanec became a revolving door of wings, with just about every forward on the team seeing some time on either side of that line.

Just as Markov's return could stabilize the Canadiens defense, Gionta's could do the same for the offense.

Then there's Scott Gomez, who was limited by injuries to 38 games last season.

He, too, is back in Montreal skating with teammates after staying in shape during the lockout by playing with his hometown Alaska Aces of the ECHL, where he had 13 points in 11 games.

That kind of production was a far cry from Gomez's nightmarish 2011-12 season in Montreal, when he had two goals and nine assists, at one point going a full year between goals and becoming a favorite target of the notoriously tough Bell Centre crowd.

Gionta, who had his best years playing alongside Gomez with the New Jersey Devils, said he thinks Gomez's health is as important to the Canadiens' fortunes as anyone else's.

"He can have a huge impact," Gionta said of Gomez. "He's extremely talented. It's the same with how the team was with that snowball effect, it happened to him. He just couldn't turn that tide and turn it the right way. He's a proud guy, he wants to work hard and go out there and help the team. No doubt he'll do that this year."

Though the free-agent acquisitions of Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon are the only official changes the Canadiens made since the end of last season, it could be the healthy return of these other players that will make the biggest difference in 2012-13.

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