Andrei Markov is smiling again.
The Montreal Canadiens' top defenceman was back skating with his teammates Tuesday. Even though he was wearing a non-contact jersey, his return to practice suggests he'll likely be back playing games before long.
"I feel good. It's fun. Finally, I'm doing something different," he said.
Markov has not played since he tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments nearly a year ago in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had played only seven games since returning from similar surgery on the same knee.
Now the premier power-play point man needs to test it on the ice and get the knee re-examined by doctors before he can be cleared for full-contact practice, the last step before playing in a game. He recently returned from a three-week stint in Florida for testing with his surgeon, Dr. James Andrews.
Markov laughed when asked repeatedly when he expects to play, answering each time with, "No idea," or "Next question." Coach Jacques Martin could not say for sure when he will return, but to see him skating drills with his teammates was encouraging for a team hit by injuries on defence and struggling on the power play.
"He's a big part of our team, our power play, our everything," said goaltender Carey Price.
The Canadiens gave Markov a three-year contract with an annual cap hit of US$5.75 million last June. However, an apparent setback in rehab delayed his return.
"I wasn't happy with my progress, to be honest with you, but at the same time I realize that was my second surgery," said Markov. "Believe me, it wasn't easy and it's still not.
"I prefer to play than to practise by myself. I don't have any particular time to be back. I'm happy right now with my progress and I'm happy to skate with the team. We'll see."
Not at practice were veteran defencemen Hal Gill, who is sick, and Jaroslav Spacek, who has an undisclosed injury. The team called up defenceman Frederic St-Denis from AHL Hamilton, which suggests that one or both won't be ready for a home game Wednesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Gill missed a 3-2 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night, when the Canadiens blew a 2-0 lead in the third period.
Spacek was injured in the second period, leaving the defence with one veteran, Josh Gorges, as well as first or second-year rearguards P.K. Subban, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin and Yannick Weber.
"I think we have a good group of young talented guys right now," said Markov. "We have a few injuries and for them it's good to have that experience. It's going to help our team in the future."
It would help more having Markov, especially back on his usual spot on the left point.
The Canadiens had one of the best power plays in the NHL when he was healthy, but they are currently 26th in the 30-team league with eight goals on 65 chances for a 12.3 per cent success rate. They have also surrendered a league-high four shorthanded goals.
Winger Michael Cammalleri was back at practice after missing Monday's game with a lower-body injury. A decision will be made Wednesday on whether he can play, but the fact that he took part in a full practice suggests he will.
Forward Andrei Kostitsyn remains sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Martin said he is not expected back this week.
It will be the first meeting this season between Montreal (7-7-3) and Carolina (6-9-3), so it will be a big game for Erik Cole, a former Hurricane who signed with the Canadiens in the off-season.
When the deal was made, some suggested Cole would struggle without centre Eric Staal, but so far they each have four goals and four assists in 17 games. That represents a major drop in production for Staal, however, who is also a nasty minus-17.
"You can't hang all that on Eric," said Cole. "I haven't seen a good chunk of their games. but he's a guy who puts a lot of pressure on himself.
"He pushes himself very hard. Sometimes early in the year, he presses maybe a little too much to be the guy. If I were a Carolina fan, I wouldn't worry as to whether he's going to turn things around and have a better finish."
The Hurricanes are 3-7-1 in their last 11 games. Montreal is 6-2-1 in its last nine.