It’s an issue that’s right there in full view, but no one seems particularly keen to talk about.
When Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was asked point-blank by NHL.com’s Arpon Basu on Friday about whether he has noted any drop-off in Andrei Markov’s game in the last couple of weeks, he rattled off a pro forma answer: “you always want to have your athlete give you games like 100 per cent, there’s times it could be tough, depending on a lot things. But Andrei, he’s our quarterback out there, he’s got a huge challenge game in game out to play against top players. Since the beginning of the year I could say he did a great job.”
There are no mistruths in that statement.
But the more fulsome answer would also have been a more bruising one: despite the team’s generally excellent play in their current 5-0-1 string, there are clear signs their best defenceman is labouring, as befits a player who appeared in only 20 games over two years because of knee surgeries.
In Thursday’s overtime loss to the New York Islanders, one of the key plays was a decision by forward Tomas Plekanec to over-commit to forward Josh Bailey on the side boards midway through the third period with the Habs up 3-2.
Markov was in a good spot to contain Bailey, yet Plekanec felt the need to shade over to help the defenceman rather than protect the centre of the ice, leaving a clear path for Franz Nielsen to steal in, take a pass from Bailey and score the tying goal past Carey Price.
This is not to hack on Plekanec, who has been the Habs’ best, most consistent forward this season, but why would he do that? If he stays in the middle of the ice, the pass becomes exponentially harder.
Maybe it was just a mistake, or a bad read, perhaps he thought Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta were back-checking harder.
But here’s another hypothesis, which admittedly doesn’t have the benefit of being tested by asking the question to the person most involved (Plekanec didn’t speak after the game and wasn’t available after practice Friday): he was worried Markov couldn’t handle Bailey, who has good wheels and size.
It’s becoming a more and more common occurrence, Alexei Emelin often goes out of his way to support his partner and countryman in their own zone (he also regularly takes the lead on chasing down iced pucks on Markov's side). He’s not alone, players always look out for teammates, especially one as beloved as Markov.
Therrien harps on endlessly about how performance dictates ice time, well if that’s true there’s an implicit statement Markov’s performance is slipping; after averaging just under 25 minutes per game through his first 10 games, the Russian is now averaging closer to 21 minutes per night.
Some of that surely has to do with the return of P.K. Subban from a contract dispute, but still.
Markov had 10 points in first 10 games, and has zero since he was burned for a goal by Toronto Maple Leafs wingers Nikolai Kulemin and Leo Komarov in the first minute of what became a 6-0 drubbing on Feb. 9.
That’s the span of seven games during which his ice time has dipped.
In analyzing the Montreal power play’s sudden lack of production, much ink has been spilled and gesturing done on l’Antichambre about the incompatibility between Markov and P.K. Subban on the point for the first unit – the subtext being Subban is the problem (because Subban is always the problem).
But Markov must shoulder some of the blame.
Listen, there’s no question the Russian is brilliant with the puck, that his positional sense and passing are off the charts, but the fact is his 34-year-old body is betraying him.
His twice rebuilt right knee no longer allows him to accelerate as suddenly when he sniffs out danger, teams understand it’s a good idea to bring speed to Markov side of the ice.
The plus/minus numbers aren’t alarming, but the underlying stats are a little: the Habs’ goalies’ save percentage when their top defenceman is on the ice is .904, the worst rating of any blueliner on the team. Aha, you’ll say, Markov plays against tougher competition than the others.
Actually, Josh Gorges has been logging the hardest minutes against the other team’s best players. And the save percentage when he’s on the ice is .954 (you can look all this up at behindthenet.ca).
Markov is still a dressing room leader, and a formidable on-ice presence, but he’s not the player he once was. Nor, apparently, is he the player he was to start the season.
That’s got to be more worrisome to the Habs than blowing a pair of two-goal leads to the Isles.
Gallagher closes in on a return: Now to some good news for the Habs: forward Brendan Gallagher practiced Friday and could well be in the lineup on Saturday against the Rangers, seven days after suffering a concussion when he was drilled into the boards from behind by Philly’s Luke Schenn.
It was the second concussion of Gallagher’s hockey career, but he has been asymptomatic since Sunday, and has almost completed the seven step return-to-play protocol.
“Weird stuff goes on with your body after one of those, but I’ve recovered quickly, which I’m thankful for,” he said.
The little winger was allowed to participate in a full-contact practice – he skated on a line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, the same line he was on before getting injured – and hopes to be cleared for game action after Saturday’s morning skate (so does Therrien, who said “I’m optimistic.”)
As to the hit, Gallagher said “it was a hockey play,” and that Schenn texted him after the game to apologize and check to see that he was okay.
Scoring for more than yourself: Pacioretty, who led the Habs in scoring last year and topped the 30-goal plateau for the first time, had no goals in his first 10 games, but he know has four in three games since bouncing a centre-ice clear-in past Cam Ward earlier this week.
There’s palpable relief from the big winger at breaking his duck, but it’s not just about him. It’s about team results, certainly, but it’s also about his pal, centre David Desharnais.
That’s why Pacioretty is kicking himself for missing an open net in the third period on Thursday.
It may have helped avoid an overtime loss, but it also would have given Desharnais, who has had struggles of his own this season, another assist.
“Davey doesn’t have a contract for next year, you always play for the team but that’s always in the back of my mind. I want to help him out as much as he’s helped me out, and if we do that we help the team out,” he said.
The two men couldn’t be more different on the surface – the big, strapping first-round pick from suburban New York City, the small, undrafted free agent from Laurier-Station, Que. – but they share a special bond.
It was forged in the American Hockey League, and Pacioretty credits Desharnais for making him the player he is.
“He basically taught me how to score goals by setting me up. I can admit I wasn’t a goal-scorer until probably my third year pro,” he said.
Desharnais, who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, topped the 60-point mark last year, yet he is often derided as too small and not dynamic enough to be a top-line centre.
Pacioretty thinks that’s nuts.
“When people doubt him, I’m like ‘bite your tongue, it’s coming’. He’s so good. Only true hockey people can understand just how good he is. I’ve never seen anyone who sees the ice the way he does,” Pacioretty added. “I want people to keep doubting him because that’s what keeps him going.”
The 24-year-old has seven points in his last four games – and Desharnais has five over that span.
So Pacioretty will be hoping the hot string continues, for both their benefit.