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Markov remains key component Habs want to get back

by Arpon Basu /
MONTREAL -- In the fall of 2009, Andrei Markov was coming off a knee injury that had cost him the entirety of the Montreal Canadiens' first-round sweep at the hands of the rival Boston Bruins the previous spring, a playoff embarrassment that played a large part in management's decision to clean house and completely overhaul the roster.

Practically the entire core of the team was allowed to depart as free agents, leaving Markov, Josh Gorges, Carey Price, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn as the only players with a tenure of more than two seasons remaining on the current edition of the club.

In came new coach Jacques Martin and a slew of new players, led by Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and others.


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For at least one of those newcomers, the idea of playing with Markov was a major selling point.

"The power play is a big role for me, so I wanted to go somewhere that had a defenseman who was a good puck distributor," said Cammalleri, who signed a five-year, $30 million contract with Montreal on July 1, 2009. "So it was one of the things I was looking for in a team. Doing my research, talking to some people about Markov, they would say his passes on the power play are so good his own team doesn't see them coming sometimes. So I said, 'that sounds like a plan.'"

Except the plan was quickly derailed.

In the 2009-10 season opener in Toronto, Markov had a freak injury when a tendon in his foot was sliced by the skate of Price during a goalmouth scramble. The injury cost him 35 games -- and set off a chain reaction of horribly bad luck.

Markov tore the ACL in his right knee in Game 1 of the second round of the 2010 playoffs when he fell awkwardly into the boards following a hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke. He returned 10 games into the 2010-11 season, only to re-injure the same ligament in his seventh game back when he collided with Carolina's Eric Staal.

So over the two years the core of this Canadiens team and coaching staff have been together, Markov has played just 60 of 190 regular-season and playoff games -- fewer than one-third.

"I got to know Andrei more off the ice than on the ice really because of the last two seasons," Martin said during training camp. "Unfortunately, his first injury in our first game was kind of a freak accident when he got cut by Carey Price's skate, and then he suffered his injury in the playoffs and re-injured his knee last year. I'm looking forward to it, I'm excited about getting Andrei Markov to really lead our back end."

Martin will have to wait a bit longer, though.

Markov, 32, is still trying to come back from that second ACL surgery and will not be in the Canadiens' lineup Thursday night when they open the season against the Maple Leafs in Toronto. He has yet to practice with the team and when exactly he will return remains a mystery, one that has an entire city of hockey fans on pins and needles, because Markov -- in spite of his chronic absence the past two years -- remains a vitally important part of the Canadiens.

The Canadiens' record with Markov in the lineup the past two years, including playoffs, is 33-20-7 -- a points percentage of .608. Without Markov the Canadiens are 62-57-11 over the same span, dropping that points percentage down to .519.

Prior to this injury-riddled two-year stretch, Markov was one of the NHL's most productive defensemen. He finished second to Washington's Mike Green in scoring among defensemen with 64 points in 78 games in 2008-09, and he was sixth in the League in '07-08 with 58 points.

More importantly, Markov's steady play allowed his partners on the ice to flourish. His regular partner at even strength from 2006-09 was Mike Komisarek, who hasn't been the same player since he left to sign as a free agent with the Maple Leafs. On the power play, defensemen like Sheldon Souray and Mark Streit excelled with Markov setting them up for their booming shots from the point. 

But for the past two years Markov has been a largely solitary figure, rehabbing his knee in the gym and going for skates by himself with the Canadiens' strength and conditioning staff. He's essentially been living the same day over and over again for the past 17 months, and he can't wait for his own personal "Groundhog Day" to end.

"I spent all summer here and worked every day. I'd like to come back tomorrow and play tomorrow, but sometimes it takes a little bit longer. That's part of rehab," Markov said just before the start of training camp, the last time he spoke to reporters. "I'm excited about the new season. We have a good team. We'll see. I'm going to continue to skate and work in the gym and continue my rehab."
"Not too many people realize how hard he battles in the corner and how hard he is to move off the puck. Everybody thinks of him as a really talented power-play specialist, but when he gets down low he gets pretty nasty." -- Carey Price on Andrei Markov

Meanwhile, his teammates prepared to begin the season without arguably their best player, a situation that has become the rule more so than the exception.

But they are not the only ones who will be learning to appreciate Markov's considerable talents once again, because he may very well be one of the NHL's most unknown stars.

To a man, each member of the Canadiens who was asked by what they knew about Markov before arriving in Montreal answered that they knew very little, if anything. But when asked what impressed them most about Markov once they got to see him on a daily basis, the answers were surprisingly varied.

"You play against him and you're aware of him, but you don't realize how steady he is all around defensively," said defenseman Hal Gill, who saw a lot of Markov during stints in Boston, Toronto and Pittsburgh. "That's what he brings to the team, he plays a lot of minutes with a steadying influence. Nothing is a big deal, nothing is ever a big pass, he just kind of makes everything look smooth. It's similar to (Detroit's Nicklas) Lidstrom where you don't really notice him, but then all of a sudden he's got two points at the end of the game and he's a plus-3. Once you see him on a daily basis, you realize what he does and how he does it. You just hope he's healthy and can do that."

In a similar but slightly different vein, it was Markov's risk management that struck Cammalleri the most when he arrived with the Canadiens.

"My first impression of him was that he's creative and he's not afraid to take that risk to make that play," Cammalleri said. "If he turns one or two over it doesn't bother him because he knows he'll make 10 other good plays that night. He's a risk-managed gunslinger, in a way."

Price has spent his whole career watching Markov make his life easier with his strong defensive play, but he says few people recognize just how hard Markov is to play against.

"It's probably his grittiness," Price said. "Not too many people realize how hard he battles in the corner and how hard he is to move off the puck. Everybody thinks of him as a really talented power-play specialist, but when he gets down low he gets pretty nasty."

Gorges came to the Canadiens in a trade with San Jose in 2007 and he said he asked Joe Thornton about Markov before he left. The description he says he got from the former Boston Bruins captain was that Markov is a "stud."

"So you come in expecting to see a top NHL defenseman, and you see it right away in his ability," Gorges said. "But I think the thing that impressed me the most is that he wants to win, he wants to compete. He's not here to pad his stats or to have his minutes and his points, he's here for the team to win. His willingness to play the team game is what really impressed me."

It is playing that team game that Markov wants so desperately.

Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier showed an enormous level of confidence in Markov's ability to come back at or near his pre-injury level of play by signing him to a three-year, $17.25 million extension in June -- a contract many Canadiens fans and media criticized as too long and too rich for a player with Markov's injury history.

As another season begins with Markov on the sidelines, he wants nothing more than to prove his GM right.
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