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Montreal Canadiens' Andrei Markov (C) and Benoit Pouliot (R) celebrate a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Florida December 30, 2009. (MIKE CARLSON/REUTERS)
Montreal Canadiens' Andrei Markov (C) and Benoit Pouliot (R) celebrate a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Florida December 30, 2009. (MIKE CARLSON/REUTERS)

CANADIENS

Andrei Markov lets leadership do the talking Add to ...

Maybe it’s the closely shaved head and determined jaw, perhaps it’s the unblinking blue-eyed gaze, upon initial consideration this is a face that says: human ice cube.

Think border guard, someone who’s going to need to see some ID, mister. Or an especially inscrutable vice-principal.

Don’t be fooled, somewhere in the depths lurks a comedian.

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Witness the response when he’s asked if the power-play slap shot he whistled past Florida Panthers goaltender Scott Clemmensen on Tuesday was so hard the goalie couldn’t see it.

“Well for me too, because I closed [my] eyes,” Montreal Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov said after the two-goal performance.

Can we get a rimshot over here?

The 34-year-old Russian isn’t likely to have them rolling on the floor at open-mike night anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an accomplished purveyor of spiky deadpan observations.

“When he wants to be,” Habs forward Ryan White said, “Marky is maybe the funniest guy in our room. He’s straight-edge and on all the time, so when he does make a joke he gets the guys going pretty good.”

Captain Brian Gionta summed up his style: “Always the one-liner, doesn’t crack a smile.”

Okay, so Markov isn’t the most voluble player in the NHL – he is unfailingly monotonous when the television cameras are trained on him – but that doesn’t make him any less cherished by his teammates.

Most of that has to do with his skill on the ice, but some of it has to do with his quiet leadership and his personality, which is generally hidden from view.

His is a major presence in the dressing room, and in some sense, the idea of Markov is just as meaningful to the Habs as the man himself – now that he’s back and healthy after two years wrecked by knee injuries, it’s as though the team has gained more than just a good defenceman.

“Without him in your lineup, it’s completely different back there. It just shows what we’ve been missing,” said Gionta, who has only played one full season with Markov since signing in 2009.

The early indications are that the Markov of old is back.

People will focus on the offence – Tuesday’s was his first multiple-goal game in more than three years – but Markov’s defensive-zone play has been just as impressive in the early going.

Though the sample size is small enough to be misleading, Markov has thrived playing against the opposition’s top players alongside partner Alexei Emelin.

He has competed at a much higher level than he did in a 13-game cameo at the tail end of last season, presumably the side benefit of a 21-game KHL stint during the lockout.

Age and injury have doubtless taken their toll on Markov’s skating ability, but even if you buy the argument he’s a step slower, his brain still allows him to see things other players don’t.

Much is made of Markov’s passing ability – as onetime defensive partner Josh Gorges said “he’ll hold the puck and hit a guy with a pass that no one on the ice realized was open” – but where he really excels is at anticipating and reading the play.

Teammates often refer to the calming effect Markov has when he’s at his best.

And unlike the past couple of seasons, Markov is now physically able to get to where his brain and instinct tell him to go.

“It’s great to have him on my side finally, he commands the ice,” said winger Colby Armstrong, who faced Markov for seven seasons as an opponent before joining the Habs as a free agent last summer. “He freezes the whole game.”

It’s a talent all top defencemen seem to have; Markov’s challenge is stay healthy enough to display it.

And while Markov may not be inclined to discuss his game in great detail – typical recent answer: “I feel comfortable because I’m comfortable” – or bare his soul in public, that’s fine with his teammates.

“I don’t think he wants to share his personal life with the world, and I respect that ... but we get to a see a side that most don’t,” Gorges said. “New guys who meet him for the first time will come and ask ‘what’s Marky all about,’ but they find out pretty quick. And it always makes me laugh.”

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