MONTREAL -- The entire city of Montreal was on pins and needles throughout the long offseason to know if Andrei Markov would be able to return to being the impact player he was before enduring two nightmarish years of injuries to his right knee.
Four games into the 2012-13 season, the Russian defenseman has done everything and more to put those fears to rest.
Markov scored a power play goal at 4:22 of overtime to lift the Montreal Canadiens to a 4-3 win Sunday against the New Jersey Devils, the defenseman's third straight game-winning goal to fuel his team's three-game win streak.
Markov's career high in goals is 16 in 2007-08, the last time he played a full 82-game season. His four goals in four games puts him a quarter of the way there just a week into the season.
In typical fashion, the soft-spoken Markov was at a loss for words to explain his early season success.
"I don't know what to say," Markov said after a long pause, thoughtfully trying to find an answer. "The whole team played hard tonight. We knew it was going to be a good challenge for us because we were playing against a good team, so we played hard and I'm happy we won the game."
Markov has made a history of being a major difference-maker for the Canadiens.
In 2009-10, the last time Markov played a significant number of games, the Canadiens were 29-16-8 in the 53 regular season and Stanley Cup Playoff games where Markov was dressed and 15-23-2 when he wasn't.
Though he managed to play the final 13 games of last season after completing his rehabilitation from his second straight reconstructive surgery on his right knee, he was nowhere near the player he's been so far this season.
"I've known Andrei a long time and I know what kind of character he has. He's a competitor, and he's been like that since his first game in the NHL. He wants to win," said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, who became Montreal's coach in his first stint with the team during Markov's rookie season in 2000-01. "He's an important player for our team. But am I surprised? No, because I know him too well."
Markov showed one of his biggest qualities as a player on the overtime winner.
Former Canadien Mike Cammalleri once remarked how Markov refuses to allow any of his mistakes throw him off his game because "he knows he'll make 10 other good plays that night. He's a risk-managed gunslinger, in a way."
Early in the overtime period Markov pinched to try and get the winning goal, but that turned into a 3-on-1 break the other way, with Ilya Kovalchuk ringing a shot off the post. However, when the time came to pinch again during a power play in the final minute of overtime, Markov swooped in from the point yet again to put away a rebound of a missed Rene Bourque shot to win the game at 4:22.
"He's a good hockey player, I don't think anybody really doubted him in this room," said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who is having quite a start to the season himself with a .936 save percentage and 1.73 goals against average through four games. "That's just the type of player he is. The supporting cast around him is helping him, the power play is clicking right now, but he's just a special player."
Brendan Gallagher scored his first NHL goal, Brandon Prust got his first in a Montreal uniform and Alex Galchenyuk had a pair of assists for the Canadiens (3-1-0), who handed the Devils (3-0-1) their first loss of the season.
David Clarkson and Patrik Elias each had a goal and two assists and Elias reached the 900-point mark for his career for the Devils, who lost at the Bell Centre for the first time since March 11, 2008 after winning their last eight visits to Montreal.
"It's a pretty cool accomplishment, but hopefully I'll keep adding," Elias said of his milestone. "It's always nice to get it in a building like this, it's a special place, the hockey's great, the fans are great, they love it. I enjoy playing here."
Martin Brodeur, who snapped his own personal Bell Centre winning streak at seven games, stopped 28 shots for the Devils in their only visit to his hometown this season, while Price made 22 saves for the Canadiens.
"Yeah, I guess so," Brodeur said when asked if it felt strange to lose in Montreal. "But I'm done for this year, so I'll have to wait another year to try to get one."
The Canadiens came out flying in the first period, jumping out to a 2-0 lead while spending practically the entire first 20 minutes in the Devils zone.
"They came out strong, they came out fast and we knew it [was coming]," Brodeur said. "We thought we were prepared for it but they caught us off guard a little bit and took advantage of it."
It could have been a much different opening period if Travis Zajac's shot were about inch further to the right on a 2-on-1 break with Kovalchuk 40 seconds after the initial faceoff, but Zajac's shot rang off the post to the right of Price.
"Siegfried and Roy were on tonight," Price said, referring to the name the goaltender in the film Goon gives to his goalposts.
Ryan White opened the scoring for Montreal at 2:25 after some great work by Travis Moen, who fought for position in front to tip an Alexei Emelin point shot and created a juicy rebound that White buried into an empty net.
Gallagher made it 2-0 at 13:35 off a 2-on-1 break with fellow rookie Galchenyuk, one-timing a perfect feed past Brodeur then jumping into Galchenyuk's arms as the Bell Centre roared. Gallagher got his first NHL point on Galchenyuk's first NHL goal last Tuesday against the Panthers only to have the favor returned against the Devils.
"He made a great play looking off the goalie and looking off the d-man," Gallagher said. "He put it exactly where it needed to be and all I had to do was hit the net."
As badly as the Canadiens dominated the Devils in the first period, the tables were turned in the second as New Jersey was a completely different team, pinning Montreal deep in the zone for nearly the entirety of the first 10 minutes.
The pressure paid off when Mark Fayne's point shot was tipped in front by Elias at 3:26 to make it 2-1 Montreal, but the Devils couldn't tie it up before the second intermission.
Montreal went ahead by two goals at 2:00 of the third period on a great play by Galchenyuk, who intercepted a clearing pass at the Devils blue line and set up Prust for his first goal in a Canadiens' uniform.
But Prust and Galchenyuk were the source of the Devils' second goal as both players were called for high-sticking during the same sequence, giving New Jersey a 5-on-3 power play at 4:32 of the third. Clarkson capitalized less than a minute later, converting a feed from Elias for his third goal of the season at 5:23.
The Devils tied it 3-3 at 13:02 after twice being down by two goals when Elias beat the Canadiens defense to a puck deep in their zone, then set up Zubrus in front for his first goal of the season.